Karate, tai chi, and other martial arts can improve a child's mind and body when parents match their kids with the right program -- and the right teacher.
"I used to be more quiet and kept to myself. But now I have confidence in what I do. I feel good about myself," says 14-year-old Molly Perry of Cherryfield, Maine.
As for Michele Williamson's children, 9-year-old Lindsay and 7-year-old Alex, who study karate near their home in Mentor, Ohio, Michele says, "Lindsay is already rather athletic, but it's helped with her confidence. With Alex, I noticed his listening skills have improved as well as his coordination."
You might think they're crediting a cutting-edge therapy or a brand-new sport with these positive changes. Not at all, it's just the age-old practice of martial arts. But what exactly are they, and who are the people your children will call "Master"?
Martial arts is the umbrella term for East Asian types of self-defense, including judo, karate, tai chi, and tae kwon do. Some, such as kickboxing and tae kwon, can be competitive sports. Others, such as tai chi, are done solely for their individual benefits.
Many American schools modify the disciplines to suit their clientele. For example, Libby Hill, instructor of the Karate Institute in Mentor, Ohio, offers cardio karate along with traditional forms of tai chi and kickboxing. Other schools have expertise in teaching kids with autism or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
The heart of any martial art is the teacher. Don't be blinded by theatrics, a slick advertising campaign, or a belief that more money equals a better school. "Just because the school costs more doesn't mean you're getting the Rolls-Royce of martial arts," says Nick Gracenin, owner of the Martial Arts Center in Sharon, Pennsylvania. "Most styles are highly suitable for children, so it isn't the style that's important, it's the quality of instruction that you look for." Here are some other considerations and strategies for parents to bear in mind.
Rely on word of mouth. Martial arts schools are neither regulated nor accredited. Nor are the instructors required to go through a government child safety clearance and a criminal record check, says Gracenin. Some schools may obtain such things on their own, but even many reputable schools do not. So you need to do some research: on-site visits and interviewing instructors and other parents are all exceptionally important tasks.
Watch and learn. Visit several schools in your area and observe the beginners' classes. Pay attention to the instructor's overall demeanor: Does he have a natural ability to relate to children? Do the classes have a healthful, respectful climate? Does the instructor show enthusiasm and openness with the pupils? Is the class size too large? Preferred class sizes are 10 to 15 students but bear in mind that some experienced instructors can handle as many as 30 students at a time with qualified assistants.
Parents should be allowed to observe any class at any time. No exceptions. If you are scouting schools with your child, check out the beginners' class. "Kids may be excited and want to see the advanced classes first, but young children can be intimidated by the intense physical activity they see and decide it's not for them. They should understand that high level skills are attained through dedication and time," Gracenin says.
Ask about emergency plans. Whether or not they've ever dealt with an emergency, instructors should be able to tell you which hospitals are in the immediate area, and what steps they'll take if someone needs medical help. If they hesitate or seem unsure, check them off the list. And find out whether the instructors and staff are certified in CPR. They should be, even though it isn't mandated by law.
One of the great allures of martial arts is the huge variety of styles. Here's a brief explanation of some of the most popular ones:
Aikido is a gentler self-defense style that emphasizes mental acuity, good breathing, relaxation techniques, and timing. In essence it focuses on finding the body's spiritual center, as well its physical center of gravity. Techniques include throws and joint locks.
Judo teaches the principle of using your opponent's strength against him, rather than relying solely on your own. It's highly physical with foot, leg, and hand strikes as well as throwing and falling.
Karate is a broad term that covers hundreds of styles that employ highly rehearsed strikes and blows using both your hands and your feet.
Kickboxing is a strenuous, high-contact sport that requires more protective gear than other disciplines. It emphasizes muscle flexibility and control, particularly in the legs and feet. Kickboxing can be slow-paced or fast and is growing in popularity.
Tae Kwon Do combines the art of hand and foot fighting. Two techniques kids love to learn in this discipline are breaking boards and sparring with opponents.
"I've had parents ask me if martial arts will make their 'problem kid' behave. They often think that martial arts will give their kids discipline. But instructors only get to see kids two or three hours a week," says Yong Chin Pak, instructor and lecturer at Iowa State University's College of Health and Human Performance.
Martial arts training may well indeed have benefits such as a commitment to courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, spirit, consistency, cooperation, and more. But those principles don't come solely from kids earning multicolor belts. They also come from parents and family, he says.
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, April 2005.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.