Kids in the Martial Arts

Martial art. Just say the word and images immediately come to mind. Bruce Lee. Ninja turtles. Chuck Norris. Mortal Kombat. Fighting. Board breaking. Kicking and punching. Flash and style. The media has brought these images to us — whether we wanted them or not. It would seem from these that it’s all about fighting. Martial arts are much more than that. At the core, they are about not fighting, friends, responsibility, courtesy, peace.

Picture a group of 4 – 7 year-old “Little Dragons” as they’re called at the Kojo Academy of Taekwon-do talking about what courtesy means — each with their own example. Hands fly, but each waits for Miss Denise (the instructor) to ask for their answer. “Holding the door for Mommy.” “Thank you and please,” adds another. “Being nice to me,” says a little one in the back.

Miss Denise has been teaching the Little Dragons classes for about 3 1/2 years now. She says they were started because “we had a lot of requests from parents.” Miss Denise adds that “My favorite part of the Little Dragons is just seeing them all excited when they come to class, just having fun doing it.”

Self-defense is often the first reason people enroll their children in martial arts. It should also be the last. While the martial arts are capable of bully-proofing, they also promote self-confidence, assertiveness (but not bullying!), calmness and concentration.

• How do you choose a school?
Choosing a school for a child to train at is the most important part of starting in the martial arts. Visit different schools with your child. See how the instructors work with other children. When are classes offered — does this fit your schedule? Does this feel like a business or a family? The instructors and atmosphere and students you have to work with are all very important.

• How do you choose a style?
Choosing a style depends on many things. Taekwon-do and karate are the most prevalent styles in this area. What style you’ve chosen matters little if you don’t find a good instructor. Make sure that the instructor works well with children, and that classes are both challenging and fun, otherwise kids will soon drop out. Each style focuses on different techniques. But, as Master Stephen Barrett of Kojo says, “All roads lead to the top of the mountain — you just need someone to help you find it!”

How early can a child really start learning and understanding this?
It is widely accepted that six years old is a good place to start training in the martial arts, unless there is a special program in place to work with younger students. Miss Denise says that the best way to teach some of the harder concepts is “by examples — and constant repetition. The kids just love to hear stories and examples.”

• Is a separate class really necessary?
Separate classes for youth and adult are not necessary. They do, however, offer advantages. Miss Denise thinks that one of the hardest things to work with is, “When a new child comes in who is extremely scared, nervous and crying — and doesn’t want Mom to leave.” She says one way that she helps alleviate this is by allowing parents to watch, with the child at first, and then gently inviting the child to join in an activity the class is doing. “It’s the first initial step that’s hard for a lot of them,” she stated.

Master Barrett added, “The Little Dragons classes are not necessary, but it’s wonderful that we have them — it helps the adult student be more accepting of working with a child.” He went on to explain further that it also helps the child in that, “It may be the first time in the child’s life where they are treated like everybody else — not just as children, that they are a person, and not just a child of six to be tolerated.”

How much is this going to cost me?
Training costs vary from school to school. Some schools require a contract for students, others run on a month to month basis. Most will require the purchase of the traditional uniform (do bak, gi — it is called many names). Also check on fees for advancement to higher belt levels.

Also check with the local town recreation programs. Many such as Essex and Jericho offer after-school programs.

Why a martial art? Why not a team sport?
One distinct advantage of martial arts over team sports is that everyone can join. Unlike team sports where one may not make the cut, or can end up on the bench, the martial arts have room for people of all abilities. Martial arts are a way to “give kids a sense of pride in being able to do something as an individual with a group — in a non-competitive way,” says Barrett. “Everyone’s on the team, and there are no bench-sitters.”

In addition, unlike team sports, the martial arts do not train boys and girls separately. Brothers and sisters, friends can train together.

• Turn it into a family affair!
The martial arts allow whole families to train together, unlike team sports. The martial arts are rare in that all levels of knowledge work together — young and old, white belt to black belt — this offers a chance for the family to work and learn together. It allows kids to realize that adults are okay and cool too — that they can talk to adults and not be frightened.

It also allows the adults to see just how much they can learn from a child, myself included. Some of my favorite times where I train have been the surprise of just how much I can learn from the “kids” ranked above me. While I expected to learn from the two instructors, I was more surprised at the clarity and fun that these senior belts possessed. I actually look forward to working with them! How many other places can a six year old set an example for an adult?

• Am I teaching my child to fight?
Actually, you are teaching your child not to fight. Most martial art schools teach kids not to start fights, not to use it to show off. One teenage black-belt I know actually hasn’t even told most people that he does taekwon-do. He doesn’t want to become “the kid to beat.” What you are teaching your child is how to defend himself, should a fight ever arise and the responsibility of self-defense.

• You say there’s more to this than just learning to fight?
Martial arts build character. All martial arts have a core philosophy including things like respect, courtesy, integrity, working for peace, self-control.

It gives a positive self-image — and with that, there is less of a chance to turn to image-boosters such as drugs, alcohol, smoking or other things available to the youth today. When children feel good about themselves, they have self-respect and no longer need these things to feel that they “belong” or that they are “cool.”

According to Barrett, “Martial arts give a child strength to stand on their own two feet, have respect for themselves and say this is right and this is wrong.” According to Barrett it also gives students role models. “It teaches respect and discipline.”

What else do martial arts help with?
While training does develop practical self-defense skills, it also develops concentration, coordination and self-confidence. According to several recent studies, “the flexibility and strength developed by training made students better…stronger, more flexible students sat straight for a longer duration of ‘seatwork’ during classroom activities, and eliminated much of the wriggling, slouching and lack of concentration many young students suffer.” (Taekwon-do Times, Oct. 1996)

The martial arts have much to offer both children and adults. It’s hard work, fun and learning all at once. Through the martial arts, kids can learn to handle hard work, challenges and still go forward when they would most like to give up.

– Appeared in Kids Vermont, 1996

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