Blog Archive

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Thinking of the Children

A friend and student of Sityodtong posted this on his Facebook wall earlier today:

Hey martial arts friends and families. I have a childhood friend in Georgia who is on the fence about enrolling her son in a martial arts program. Please go to my page and comment on the original thread with regards to your opinion(s) on the benefits of martial arts for kids.

I admit, I cringed a little bit reading this. Mostly because I knew that if I started writing about it, it would be long, and might not entirely fulfill my friend's directive of sharing the benefits of martial arts for kids. But I offered my honest opinion, and he asked for it. I figure it's going to be long enough to be a blog post.

Teaching martial arts to children has become an industry in the United States (perhaps the world...). Like all industries, it's got it's good sides and it's bad sides. Unfortunately, I think the bad sides are often more prevalent, possibly because they just get more press, and possibly because there really are a lot of absolutely awful children's martial arts programs out there.

Apparently, the person in question lives in a one-horse town (metaphorically), so the question of "which school" is apparently off the table. I find that both surprising and puzzling, but there it is.

Side Note: I don't teach children very often. The youngest kid I've ever taught for more than a week was eleven years old, and he was a hardcore hockey player who used to spar Muay Thai with adults and complain that they were going to easy on him. I think teaching children is great, but my experience is more with adults than with kids. However, I've seen a lot of kids' programs over the years, and I think I have enough experience to judge the good from the bad.

The Good Stuff

Martial arts can be great for children. They are an athletic activity, and I believe that athletics, in general, are important for children, especially now. We live in an era where children are becoming increasingly inactive and obese, and anything that gets them off their butts and moving around is a good thing (mostly).

Of all the things that martial arts schools claim to teach kids, I think the one I've seen most in evidence is discipline. NOT self-discipline, necessarily, but discipline. There's a critical distinction there. Discipline is basically the ability to follow orders. If sensei says "do 1000 pushups", you say "yessir" and do 1000 push-ups. That is not the same as self-discipline, which is the ability to make yourself do 1000 pushups without someone telling you to.

Discipline is a valuable skill in certain segments of society. Some kids really need it.

There seems to be some evidence that martial arts can help with ADD/ADHD. I haven't read the literature to be deeply familiar with it, but I know it's out there.

The martial arts can teach a child a lot about perseverance in the face of adversity. In any school worth its salt, all of the students, children included, will be pushed at some point. If they are doing a striking system, that means they should get hit. If they are doing a grappling system, they should get thrown, pinned, and otherwise manhandled. I believe that these experiences are invaluable, and often lacking for a lot of our youth. Kelly Starrett speaks about this more here:

The martial arts might teach a kid how to defend himself, but probably not. Sorry folks...I think most martial arts schools don't even teach ADULTS how to defend themselves well, never mind children. More of that under the bad section.

A martial arts school can be a place where a child can make new friends, forming bonds that can last for years, if not a lifetime. Some of my longest, closest friends I know thanks to the martial arts, and in some cases, they are people I might never have known otherwise.

Similarly, a good instructor can be a lifelong mentor to the child. Outside of my parents, some of the most influential people in my life have been the martial arts coaches that I've had. That is a powerful thing.

Which leads me to...

The Bad Stuff

I'll start with the flip side of what I mentioned a moment ago: your child's instructor can be an incredibly powerful influence on your child. That is, in fact, their job. While that influence can be amazingly positive, it can also be horribly destructive and negative. Martial artists, as a rule, have issues. Many of them have the emotional and mental maturity of a twelve year old child. Some of the worst human beings I've met have been martial artists. I've trained with instructors who were adulterers, borderline alcoholics, liars, and outright frauds. I've read about worse.

Side note: please don't jump in here and tell me that those people aren't "true martial artists". That's a cop-out answer that ignores the fact that these people wear martial arts uniforms, practice martial arts, and do everything that the non-evil martial artists do. Good guys and bad guys are not conveniently labeled or color-coded, and there are predators who wear the uniforms of the people who are supposed to stop them. They may be horrible people, but they are still martial artists, for all that it matters to anyone.

In the case of this particular woman has only one school to evaluate, so the question becomes, are the people who run that school the kind of people who she wants influencing her son? And not just about martial arts, but about life? Again, with frank honesty: it is never a shock to me that we don't have a lot of kid's at Sityodtong right now. The gym culture is coarse, crude, and not exactly PG. Some parents aren't bothered by that. Many are. If you are going to put your child in the hands of any teacher, be sure that they are the sort of person who teach your child the things they want to learn.

Bad thing number two. Many martial arts schools will claim to teach your child self-defense. Few actually will. Sorry if I'm offending some of you reading this, but there it is. I think this is DOUBLY true when it comes to kids. The subject of children's self-defense is amazingly complicated, and the fact that little Johnny can do a split and break a couple of boards does not mean that he is any more capable of defending himself before he got his junior black belt. If you are at all concerned with your child's safety, you need to read Gavin De Becker's books The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift. They outline some strategies and concepts for children's safety that all parents (and indeed, all people) should be aware of, regardless of whether they have or ever will have any martial arts training. Then read Rory Miller's Meditations on Violence, Tony Blauer's articles, and Strong on Defense if you can find it. Then see if you can find an instructor who knows what they're talking about.

Martial arts can become an obsession for kids. Yes, that can be a nice thing, but it can also mean a huge amount of time and energy devoted to a single passion. They may let other things slide, like other sports. Or schoolwork. I had one student who I had to have a good sit-down with because he had let his grades slide in favor of training.

Some martial arts schools are basically cults. Be sure you are not enrolling your child in one.

While many martial artists will swear up and down that the benefits derived from their practices are unique to them, I think that's largely untrue. Most of it is just the good stuff that comes from athletics. Which is all good stuff, mind you, but martial artists hardly have a monopoly on things like perseverance, loyalty, honor, respect, and discipline. The really good ones can teach something about fighting, but frankly, most kids I've seen will learn more about how to protect themselves playing hockey or football than they will in the average "lil' draggin's" class. Yes, the spelling errors are deliberate.

To sum up: At the end of the day, my view on martial arts for kids is pretty much in line with that of martial arts for adults, which is this. Know what you want. Know why you want it. Research. Think carefully. Caveat Emptor.


Josh K. said...

Need Saying!

You eversee the episode of Penn & Tellers: Bulls**t on Martial Arts. Has Marc MacYoung in it.

Good Stuff.

Jake said...


I saw it a while back. It was interesting. I thought some of it was good. Some of it seemed like easy cheap shots at people (the old Tai Chi lady, I think, got some deserved, and some undeserved scorn).

Still, nice to see people calling this stuff out. Some of it just gets ridiculous.