Friday, July 20, 2007

Is my child old enough for Martial Arts?

As a karate instructor, I often get asked, “What is the best age for a child to begin martial arts training?” Of course, there is no single best age, but for those readers who want a number; Seven.

To be clear, there are a number of reasons why you might be thinking about martial arts, and I'll discuss some good ones (and not so good ones) in an upcoming post.

There are a lot of factors, but I’ll express the important ones by asking five simple questions. If you can confidently answer all of them ‘Yes’, then your child is probably ready.
  1. Can your child reliably identify the difference between her right and left? The key operative here is ‘reliably.’ If your child has to think about it, or if they need to look at their hands to see which forefinger and thumb form the letter ‘L’, she’s probably a little too young. Wait a few months and test them again.
  2. Can your child count to ten? Martial arts education is based on repetition and usually in multiples of ten. Many martial arts will teach counting to ten in a foreign language such as Japanese, Korean, or Chinese, but this of course this assumes one knows what ten is.
  3. Can your child walk ten steps forward in a straight line and then ten steps backward? I’m not too concerned that the walk backwards is all that straight, because, geez, many adults can’t execute that one. This exercise will test your child’s ability to translate counting into something concrete. Additionally, many small children have no concept of a line, making them subject to injury in a martial arts class.
  4. Can your child follow directions like, “touch your left hand to your right shoulder.” “Look to the left”. “Pick up your right foot and take one step towards the right.” Does the child not only understand these simple instructions, but do they have the developmental maturity to listen and follow them?
  5. The last question is for you, the parent. Let’s say that you’ve answered, yes, to all of the above, and you subsequently enroll your son in a program. Guess what, in less than six months (one or two belt promotions) he is going to say he is bored, doesn’t want to come to class, it’s too hard, it’s boring, they just do the same stuff over and over, and did we mention its boring? What will you do? If the answer is that you’ll let him quit, save everybody the effort and keep your money, because no child has ever found martial arts training, or dancing, or music lessons, or religious studies, or school, or anything so interesting that they volunteer to stick with it. Certainly no child under the age of seven has ever stuck it out without parental encouragement.
This last topic, how to motivate your child through the years it takes to reap the benefits of martial arts training, requires more discussion that this article should cover. Essentially, you need to find a balance that encourages continued training, without harboring negative feelings. For now, let’s just say that if you’re going to discontinue training when the child complains, well, kids complain; especially for endeavors which require hard work, sweat, mental concentration, repetition, and well I think you get the point.
So why seven? By age seven, most children are able to grasp a higher purpose to martial arts than just “It will make mom happy.” They have the capacity, or will shortly, to find value in their own achievement. Naturally, some kids younger than seven are ready, and some kids over seven still need developmental growth. To be sure there is some debate, and there are those that feel seven is too old to become truly great. To which I say, what is our goal here? Is it to create truly great martial artists (whatever that is), or is it to instill confidence, a positive self esteem, and develop self-defense skills that will yield young men and women who walk unafraid of common bullies, and those that would do them harm.

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