Teaching Martial Arts to kids

I was recently asked to comment on children learning martial arts. I was asked as my qualifications and experience are reasonably unique amongst martial arts instructors. Whilst some martial artists are undoubtedly school teachers and some are psychologists, I’ve yet to meet one who is both a school teacher and a child and adolescent psychologist.

Amongst other university qualifications, I hold several pertinent to child psychology and education, I attained black belt grades under strict Japanese instructors with incredibly high standards in several styles of karate. I’m a recognised gung fu instructor given the title “sifu” by the Chinese. I’m a qualified school teacher, having taught school for ten years. I’ve worked in both primary and secondary school settings, in co-educational and boys schools, in government and private systems. Outside the gung fu world, I’m also a qualified and state registered psychologist and am a full member of the Australian Psychological Society. I’ve worked as a psychologist in several specialist roles for several decades – predominantly as a child and adolescent psychologist. I’ve lectured at two universities on child and adolescent behaviour management. I’ve presented numerous professional development courses to teachers and written countless articles on various aspects of teaching in two states over several decades. I’ve been a martial artist for forty odd years and have raised three children. Hence, I do know a little, and am a little qualified to comment on this topic as well as other martial arts related issues with a relevant education and legitimate martial art experience behind me.

For good or ill, martial art has become a very popular activity in my lifetime. Martial arts have also become a very popular activity for children in my lifetime. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing overall. I use the term “children” here not to refer solely to legal minors – those under 18 years of age. In some legal jurisdictions the distinction is made between “children” and “young persons”. Young persons are between 13 to 18 years of age. Children are those under 12. It is this latter group I mostly refer to when I use the term “children”. Age alone, though is not a sole discriminator as to the suitability to learn a martial art. Some 12 year olds can be more intelligent and better behaved than older adolescents and especially can be better behaved as human beings than some of the adult martial artists I’ve met from time to time.

Over nearly fifty years ago when, as a young man, I was originally learning martial arts it was incredibly rare or unheard of that children learnt martial arts – at least in the West. There have always been children learn martial arts in some Eastern cultures. I myself learnt some martial arts as a young boy. Usually in those days martial arts were taught by family members or friends and children were not signed up in a martial arts school. My gung fu teachers learnt in this way as children. Or, to be precise, they learnt as young adolescents. Martial arts schools were visibly fewer back then, anyway. Most of the teachers turned away children – and most also turned away women, incidentally. Actually, very few women would ever even have thought of learning a martial art back then. It was a cultural and historical phenomenon before feminists began impacting society. Nowadays, things have gone too far, we have the utterly ridiculous situation of children being awarded black belts in some locations around the globe! No child can possibly have the skills any legitimate martial artist would attribute to someone regarded as at a legitimate black belt level, I’m afraid! Any genuine martial artist scoffs at the notion of a child being worth a black belt!

Although I have taught a few children martial arts in the past for brief periods, I don’t currently teach anyone under secondary school age (about 12 years old).  Whilst learning what, for want of a better term, we could call fairly accurately, “pop” martial arts may do no harm for many children, it strikes me it is not particularly appropriate. I don’t think it does that much good for the youngster that it’s worthwhile. It can have very negative consequences, as a few examples I’ll give in a moment will show. By “pop” martial art I refer to any martial art that focuses on the activity as sport, socialisation or leisure activity rather than self defence. This would include by far the bulk of modern, commercial sports martial arts schools. (Refer to my article on why sports martial arts simply don’t work as realworld self defence for a fuller explanation as to why the sport emphasis in modern martial arts is misleading with respect to real world self defence).

My firmly held conviction, bearing in mind my qualifications and experience, is that it is not a wise thing to teach a child a martial art. I think it was probably the Koreans and Americans who popularised martial arts for children. The Koreans, with their aggressively commercial approach to martial arts, probably saw the enormous commercial potential in the children’s market and the advantage of indoctrinating children into being loyal to their childhood martial art through to adulthood. The Americans probably had the same reasons. But I suspect the “cute” factor also played a large part.  Little League was a natural forerunner to “Little Martial Art”, I guess. Nowadays, in Australia Little Rugby League might be the natural forerunner to “Little Ozzie Martial Arts”. Along with this goes all the horrors of those utterly loathsome Little Rugby League side-line thug dads! As if the world needs more aggressive children! Or thug footballers!

A few examples of why I don’t teach children martial art: In a local primary school setting a small boy about 10 who’d been learning Tae Kwon Do for several months, and had obviously not been taught legitimate martial arts restraint by his young commercial instructor, was harassing a girl much smaller than him – she was 8. The girl was getting the better of him in a verbal confrontation so what did our delinquent hero do? Spinning back kick to her stomach, of course. Not much skill or power, but you don’t need a lot in accidents like this. Ruptured spleen, hospital, surgical removal of the ruptured spleen, lifetime of chronic medical condition!

Another case: a boy with Autistic Spectrum Disorder was enrolled in a martial arts class to “give him self-confidence because he’s being bullied”. As the psychologist involved I protested – but the mother knew best! Several months later I personally witnessed him karate kick another boy at school in the face for some imagined slight. Broken nose, teeth dislodged! The victim had simply been misinterpreted by this boy and wasn’t in fact bullying him at all. (For the layperson a distinguishing feature of Autistim is what could, for want of a very brief description here, be called emotional and social retardation – the sufferers either don’t understand or have inordinate difficulty understanding normal social interactions). This boy previously wouldn’t say “boo!” to a mouse! But his mother had told him to “karate the bullies!”  Great! That wasn’t responsible parental advice!

A third example: a 12 year old boy, very beefy lad with a long history of conduct disorder, aggression and delinquent behaviors which had attracted several state level interventions over the years to no avail was enrolled in a local commercial karate chain school by his father to “give him some discipline”. The father is a “bash sense into him” type. (One doesn’t have to wonder why the child is as he is!) This lad had recently been involved in a previous assault on a girl. Once he learnt how to strike a little harder he subsequently assaulted two other girls with his newfound martial arts “skill”. He assaulted a number of male peers too but the assaults on the girls attracted more attention. The girls’ parents were more distressed naturally, having their teenage girls assaulted on the street. At the time of writing this, he’s currently being taken to court by one of the girl’s parents. Most martial arts can be even accidentally potentially far too dangerous for many children. Some might argue these are exceptions. Well, I’d argue “exceptions prove the rule”. The popularisation of martial arts in action movies plus enrolling a keen young boy in a local commercial sport martial arts school is not without the potential for possible problems!

I want to state quite unequivocally that teaching martial art to children is definitely not the answer to bullying. There’s been a lot of research done on bullying over the last decade. I spent a whole year researching it and reading everything that had been published on the topic to that time, myself. I’ve spent decades of my professional experience dealing with bullying in schools and adult organisations and witnessing a number of martial artists try it on those who hold contrary opinions to them. (Many martial artists have ego difficulties and can’t tolerate anyone daring to disagree with their opinions. It’s quite a fetish with some of them and is often accompanied with physical threats!)

To be successfully dealt with, bullying has to be dealt with in other ways than by simply trying to “out-thump” the bully!  Martial arts taught to children often turns a former victim into a bully! It turns a bully into a more powerful bully! The “discipline” seen by some parents in some martial arts schools (military type “discipline”) is not what’s required in these cases. (Many martial arts – the Korean ones especially – are based on military models, having emerged directly from the military – as with the Koreans, or been influenced by the military – as with the Japanese, in Asian cultures. Filipino martial arts, for example, were influenced by guerilla movements and modern criminal groups and the arts of other ethnic groups attract gangsters – the yakusa and tongs). What is required is a more comprehensive package of case management entailing enhanced parenting skills; sophisticated behavior management; modeling; a school climate change; and, counselling along evidence-based lines focused not on simplistic, externalised “discipline” (obeying authority) but internalised self discipline based on approximating universal moral values.

Although I know it is done in China (a very different culture with a very different social and family ethic), and many instructors do it in the West (hoping to recruit/indoctrinate the new generation of devotees and knowing there’s a huge market to exploit) teaching children any martial art is unfortunately fraught with difficulty. There are both physical and psychological immaturities and different rates of development to consider as well as the normal variations in temperament we’d find in adults. And, on this point, I may as well say it, I do not believe all adults ought to simply be able to enrol in a martial arts school, either. Martial arts are not for everyone!

Those who know me understand my views on this topic. Martial arts are, despite their being made into, and popularised as, a commercial commodity by those keen to bring a market perspective into martial arts, are not suited for everyone. I’ve encountered many martial artists with distinct personality disorders that ought never have been allowed to boost their aggression and learn better how to hurt people. Here’s another point, concerning children learning martial arts – as with other sports though too, I guess – what sort of adult do we want to serve as role models for our children? Clean-cut, polite, controlled, psychologically healthy young men – as a number of martial artists are – or angry thug zealots, some of whom look and act like extras from the movie “Mad Max” or the leads in “Romper Stomper”?

Sure, there are some excellent coaching qualifications people can obtain and there are lots of good, and some great, coaches of children in a variety of sports around our nation – some superb folk. There’re also some lousy and damaging ones. There’ve even been some criminal ones, too, I’m afraid. We read about some of them in the media – even at Olympic level. And some are regrettably fanatical zealots who wreck children’s lives and families. As a counsellor, I’ve mopped up the emotional train wrecks some of these people have caused from time to time.

With respect to martial arts specifically, however, on the teaching side, I’ve rarely seen a martial arts instructor with what could be described as optimal teaching skills as far as children are concerned. Maybe they’re out there and I haven’t seen them. I hope so. Mostly I’ve seen sheer mediocrity, though. Teaching is an art in itself (Why do we have four year university degrees to qualify teachers? Why are professional teachers required to upgrade their skill annually with compulsory professional development?). Teaching children is qualitatively different to teaching adults. That’s why the academics distinguish between “pedagogy” (the skills of teaching children) and “androgogy” (the skills of teaching adults).

Teaching a martial art as a martial art in the sense of what I see as the sole purpose of a martial art – real world self defence – is certainly a skill that goes way beyond the modern notion of “coaching”. It entails being mature not only as a martial artist but as a person and citizen. (I’ve definitely met a number of martial artists who would fail on either or both of those last two criteria). It entails having been initiated into a legitimate lineage of past masters by a legitimate master, having been taught not only how to perform the art but why it is the way it is and how to transmit it. It ought also to entail knowing how to select out inappropriate students.

Modern martial arts are seen by many in the modern world as a “sport” – yet they’re also something different. Modern commercial martial arts are seen to have dual or multiple uses – as sport, as leisure, as a socialisation exercise, as a fitness activity, and, as self defence. And, some more esoteric martial arts students even see martial arts as a “way to find themselves” – a sort of New Age spiritual journey of sorts. And, in the case of children, let’s not forget their parents’ wishes to subject the child to “discipline”. Thus, a martial art could be seen as many things to many people.  Personally I’ve always seen martial art, and maybe I’m a bit quirky, as martial art! It’s “martial” – to do with fighting, and “art” – requiring skill and not something everyone can do – by definition. Your artwork inevitably doesn’t hang in art galleries right? Art is rare! In Chinese the characters signifying martial art can be read as “stop the fight”. Another set can be read as signifying “significant and outstanding skill attained over a period of dedicated time”. I see martial art, then, for one thing and one thing only – real world self defence.

If you’re looking for any of the multiple features of martial art for your children you ought to interview the instructor, watch a few classes and observe the behaviour of the students. If you like what you see then you’ve found what you seek. If not, move on. Check my other article on this site as to the qualities you ought to look for in an ideal self defence school and instructor.

As to the essential and most important elements in a martial arts class run for children, if children must be taught martial arts, I would see some of these as the following:

  • Separation – children ought not learn in the same class as adults. Are they taught with adults at school?  How would you feel about that? The way children ought to be taught and ought to train is different to adults. Adults don’t want to be distracted in class by children. The potential for injury is also greater if we mix children and adults in any physical activity. Would you want to do any sport with people about twice your height and about four times your weight?
  • Inclusivity – all children ought to be catered for within the limits of the instructor’s capacity to manage them, the limits of public liability and the capacity to exercise reasonable duty of care, and the child’s capacity to comprehend what is taught and the implications of misuse. A class size definitely not exceeding 20 would be the maximum any professional dealing with children would countenance.  If there was a child with behavioural problems in that group then the numbers ought to be reduced significantly.  Managing a child with behavioural difficulties can be equivalent to managing between possibly two to four other children.
  • Enjoyment – the classes have to be fun.  Not mayhem, but enjoyable.
  • Respect and safety – no child should bully, no child should be allowed to be intimidated, no-one ought stand by and allow bullying or intimidation to occur. No instructor ought put down a child in the presence of others. There ought be no over-demands.
  • Empowerment – each child should feel good about their effort and achievement. With empowerment comes responsibility so the instructor ought be at great pains to ensure power given the children is not abused. What’s Spiderman’s theme? “With great power comes great responsibility”. I like that!  So often forgotten!

So, there you have it! Some thoughts on teaching children martial arts, not from some-one who is trying to promote martial arts as a commercial activity. Not from some-one trying to sign your child up for lessons. Not from some-one who wants anything from you. Look around at the range of children’s activities that don’t teach what could end up not being self defence but violence visited on others. Enrol your child in a sport or activity they enjoy until they’re mature enough – physically, psychologically and emotionally – to appropriately learn a martial art. Then choose the right school and right instructor. If your child has socialisation difficulties, is behaviorally challenging or is being bullied, talk to the real experts, the professionals at the child’s school – the staff and school counsellor – not a commercial martial arts instructor. If you make a poor choice it could exacerbate your child’s problems considerably.