Martial arts: Is it right for your kids? – Cate Burke

After having watched Kung Fu Panda for the 37th time this summer, it is no wonder that your kids are now insisting that they want to learn martial arts.

While the study of karate, kung fu, taekwon-do, and other forms of self-defense offer many benefits for kids and adults, parents often wonder if it is right for their children. It is also challenging to select a style and studio, especially if you have never studied martial arts.

First you may wish to question the reason or reasons behind your child’s interest in taking martial arts. If it is because it “looks cool” in the movies or they want to learn to fight, perhaps these are not the best reasons. However, if your family’s interest stems from a yearning for new challenges and self-defense in a structured environment then you should consider the many benefits that this activity has to offer.

Martial arts give boys and girls a healthy, controlled outlet for their almost-boundless energy and can provide additional energy for those who could use a little more. They can be a way to present many important life-lessons to young people, and introduce them to a new set of friends with a built-in common interest. Also, a good school will not only teach their students how to use their self-defense skills, but when they should (and when they shouldn’t!)

Steve Dexter, father to 7-year-old Jack, has observed a number of benefits over his son’s four years of training. “Jack has increased agility, confidence and a moral base (such as respecting teachers) that I don’t see kids getting in school these days.”

Matthew Apsokardu, a professional martial arts writer who has taught karate for over 13 years, has recently released a free ebook that is available for download at This book provides a basic overview of martial arts, including information on selecting a style and what to expect from a school. This ebook provides tips to help you prepare your child (mentally and physically) for joining a school and set him or her on the path to be a successful student.

Apsokardu explains, “As a parent, it is critical that you have an understanding of what is normal and abnormal behavior in a martial art school. Furthermore, you’ll want to learn how to deal with problem students, teachers, and other issues that could arise.” This ebook, in addition to being a good resource for parents, is also accessible for older children and teens.

When selecting a martial art, it is important to remember that not all styles emphasize all aspects. Some will concentrate on flexibility and endurance while others may focus more on sparring and strength training. Schools within each style can also vary dramatically. For example, some may stress the philosophical or traditional elements of the martial art while others will not. When selecting a style and training studio, keep in mind what your child wants from the experience, how he or she best learns, and what type of teacher they are most comfortable with.

As an example, the Afro-Brazilian art form capoeira is all about the energy dynamic; the energy that is released through the combination of dance, music, and martial art. Unlike the ranks or belts in other forms, achievements or chords are often based on play and accomplishments. Jason Luethje, a dedicated capoeira player and instructor in Iowa City, acknowledges that there is merit to a variety of styles. He states, “We want both our sons involved in martial arts, whatever one they chose to pursue.”

Your local library and the internet can be used to compare different styles. Once you select a style, you will want to visit a few schools with your child. It is important to observe a class with your child and make sure you are both comfortable with the environment and the teacher before signing up.

Once a student begins training, it is very easy for both the child and parent to become overly focused on the black belt. As a parent, Steve Dexter would caution other parents “not to race to the finish but enjoy the process.” While there are many rewards that kids gain from taking martial arts, they do not occur overnight but with dedication and determination – the same as with any other sport or activity.

My husband, who has a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do and was the program director at the studio where he trained for several years, is counting down the days until our boy/girl twins are old enough to start taking martial arts with him. So in our house it is not so much a question of will they, but of when.