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Selecting a Martial Arts School for Your Child
By Pete Kautz 2004

"How do I find a good martial art school to enroll my child in?"

I have been asked this question literally hundreds of times over the years by parents who were looking to get their kids into martial arts classes. It is a hard one to answer fully (though there is a "short answer", which we'll get to later) because of all the factors involved.

This article is being written right now because yet again I find myself answering the same question. One of my students has a friend from back home in NJ with a 5-year old boy he wants to get involved in the martial arts and he needed some advise. So, as a benefit for all of you out there, I have taken my e-mail answers to him and expanded on them for this piece. Enjoy!

The Disclaimer:
Because of the diverse and often fickle nature of children, parents, and school owners out there nothing can be etched in stone. This is a good general guideline to use, a blueprint for success, but everything is circumstantial.

The Basic Rule to Remember: Your Kid is #1
There are better and worse arts for your kids to study, for sure, but probably the most important thing to look for is a good instructor who you and your kid feel comfortable with.

In the course of your child's time in the martial arts (hopefully years rather than weeks) there will be inevitably be hard days in training, because that is the nature of the martial arts. Especially at these times, you need to have a school and teacher who you know honestly care about your child's spirit so it will be enhanced and built up by the process. Without this, much of the training can potentially be psychologically and physically detrimental to the child!

I have seen kids who were spooked about the martial arts because of a bad teacher / experience early on. They grew and developed wonderfully under different teachers, but it was hard for them to trust and develop to their potential after a bad start.

Step Zero: First Things First
The first things to determine are:

1) The age and gender of the kid in question.

2) Whether the parent is deciding to put their kid into a school or if the kid is asking (or begging) to take lessons.

I always like to know these details first, because they really influence the type of training that you might want to get your child into. A 5 year old and a 15 year old have very different priorities and needs. Older children can learn more serious combative arts without the same fear of them using them inappropriately. Girls face different pressures than boys, both in terms of practicing the martial arts (which some may still see as un-feminine) and in terms of needing to learn specific techniques related to defending against sexual assault.

Step One: Turtles, Buddies, Bullies, and You
Why does your kid want to learn martial arts? Or is it that you want them to learn?

There are only a few basic reasons that kids get into the martial arts. Here are the major themes I have seen again and again. For you parents out there thinking about enrolling your child in a martial arts school, let me ask, do some of these apply to your circumstance? Or someone you know?

Zach is really into this TV Show / Movie / Action Figure / Video Game / Comic Book etc. that features martial arts combat, and has asked to take lessons. He loves to jump around and play "karate hero".

Many kids actually get involved these days because of these kids of pop culture sources. It makes sense, really. The martial arts so pervade entertainment sources as to be ubiquitous. Especially these days, everyone in movies and TV seems to be able to leap, twirl, and kick with the grace of wire-assisted Hong Kung stars.

I first realized the true power of this kind of fantasy association can have when a mom brought her 6 year old son to me for Kung Fu lessons back in 1990. I always had a kid kick a focus mitt during their first class as a simple test. It was something that any kid could do, it made a big noise (so the parents liked it), and it showed me quickly how physical the kid was overall. Anyhow, this 1st grader says to me "How should I kick it?" so I ask him "Well, how can you kick?"

Well, he starts to move around and throw kicks, and no joke could throw decent front, round, side, back, spinning kicks and even jumping kicks! He was like a little kicking dynamo. So I ask his mom where he learned, since she hadn't mentioned it before, and she tells me "He watches the Ninja Turtles movie all the time, and sometimes uses the remote-control to watch it in slow motion."

That's hard-core power learning! He was so involved in the Turtles that he literally had trained himself to emulate their every move.

Pro: It gets them into a healthy activity, teaches difference between real and make believe

Con: Can lose interest fast when hard work sets in, especially if un-athletic and forced to compete. Hyper kids like it if there is not too much discipline, since they can bounce around and hit things.

Kate has a friend who takes lessons. Her friend Lucy invited her to a "Karate night" at her school and now Kate wants to join up there as well.

Depending on how good of friends the kids are, this can be a wonderful situation, but it has its pitfalls as well. If your kid is really best buddies with this other kid in question, then sure, why not check it out like we will discuss. It will probably be good for both kids and you might be able to share driving, etc. with the other parents. The only problem is if their buddy quits, or gets put into a different class, your kid may want to quit "just because".

However, if this is just some random kid in their class at school, who you haven't heard about before from your child, be aware that it is common marketing to have "Bring-a-Buddy" nights at martial arts schools as a way to get more members. The way they encourage their students to bring in their friends is by dangling merchandise in front of them in a contest where the students to get "points towards free gear or lessons" by bring in their friends. The gimmick is usually something like "Bring 10 friends, and get this great prize" all the way down to "Bring 1 friend and get this nice school pencil."

(Please do not demonize commercial school owners for this, though. They need to keep a steady flow of students coming in the door or they will close down, and this is a good way to pick up new students. You need to spend money on advertising anyhow, so spending money on gear to give to your students as prizes is at least all money kept "in house" in terms of the school and improving the quality of the experience there for everyone. If the promotion is successful, it will be a lot of fun and there will be hundreds of dollars in new sparring gear, focus mitts, and other useful and shareable pieces of equipment among the student body, which is good for everyone.)

The buddy in question may also be a sibling. They may sign up together, or one sibling may join and then others will join later, perhaps because they are finally old enough. This is always a special case, and may work better or worse, depending on the specific kids. I have seen kids who loved to train together, kids who tolerated each other, and kids who wished their sibling was taking a class elsewhere, like on Mars! Which kids are your kids?

Age difference can be a problem in the fact that the perfect art for one kid might not be right for the other, and because of the fact that if their ages are too far apart, they will likely be in different classes. Class schedules and age requirements are school specific, so look carefully at their printed schedules.

Sometimes, kids really need their own "thing" and resent sharing their school, teacher, and dojo family with their siblings. One 9 year old girl I remember was a top student in Kung Fu and loved it because it was also her special time and connection with her dad who studied there too. When her older sister briefly joined, it was not a good thing, as you can imagine. Luckily, her big sister liked running cross-country much more than doing Kung Fu, and "bowed out" to pursue that. Happiness for all. (On a side note, the older sister did take several self defense classes designed for women that were taught by other schools, because she and her folks saw the value of the arts, but wanted something more age appropriate and specific for her needs as someone headed off to college)

Now, on the other hand, I have seen whole families who practice the martial arts together. Some schools offer big discounts or even free memberships to additional family members, so be sure to ask if you are even slightly considering the possibility for the future. One chain of Kenpo schools I remember had an offer that when one family member signed up, the rest of the family could train for free. They put this in all their ads, and rightly so. It was big advantage for them over the school down the street who charged slightly less per month, but gave no discount for multiple family members. As both schools were in a rural area where people had big families, which school do you think did bigger business?

Pro: Can be great if both kids are friends. Can get reduced / free classes for additional siblings.

Con: Can be a marketing scheme, If their friend drops out your kid may want to quit as well, Classes may be separated by belt-ranking, so kids may get split up at some point.

"Thomas gets picked on in school. He keeps talking about Karate and I wonder if it might be good for him to take some lessons."

Bullies are a tough situation for a parent, since there is little they can physically do about the problem. The fact is that all the old standby suggestions people make, like "calling the bullies' parents", "calling the school", "having your child tell a teacher" and so on are just a bunch of lies and will not help your kid. The only long term solution is for your child to learn to handle themselves in a fight so that they are not going to be victims of physical violence, preferably alongside the verbal and psychological skills that go with this. However, martial arts is not a cure all, and most kids classes have more to do with fun and character development than fighting.

If you do get your child involved in the martial arts, perhaps the most important thing that you need to reminded them of, especially if they are bullied, is that martial arts is like gold in their pocket. It must be kept hidden, because if people know of it, they will be challenged. This is the what is meant by
"I conceal my treasure".

You can imagine the reaction that a bully would have upon learning that one of his regular victims is now "taking karate". It would probably be to go taunt and beat this victim as usual and to try to get them to "use their karate" so as to further humiliate them when they fail.

Does this mean to not ever fight and just get hurt? No. Like gold, there is a specific time and place to use it. When forced to fight, fight to win.

However, it has been my experience that many kids who take up martial arts because of bullies find that they never (or seldom) have to use their skills, and that their newfound confidence, strength, and spirit is enough to insure that next time someone else in the victim, and not them. They simply become "not worth it" to the bully.

Pro: Can be just the confidence and skill boost that is needed, Is the only real and lasting solution to bullies

Con: A little knowledge and false confidence can be a bad mix, fighting in school can be seriously punished these days of "zero-tolerance", older kids sometimes carry weapons kill each other over stupid things

"I want my two kids to get the all the mental, physical, and self-defense benefits from martial arts."

If you are like most parents, you want to get your child involved with a martial art because you feel it will help them to be a winner, be more confidant, get better grades, etc. At least what parents will say - even if they also mean "able to defend themselves" too.

Like signing your kid up for any activity, be sure that martial arts are really for the child's best interest, and not because you always wanted to study them! I have seen more unhappy kids in sports and other activities because the parents secretly wished they had done it, themselves.

On the bright side, most kids are excited about getting to study martial arts - or at least a lot more excited about them than having to take tuba lessons or having to learn to speak Yiddish.

Pro: Just like swimming lessons, martial arts is a good life skill to have and kids should learn when young.

Con: Might be more for the parent than the child.

Step Two: Crouching Phone Book, Hidden Map
Obviously some schools will be closer to you than others in driving distance, so this limits your school choice to some degree. Distance is relative to your situation and location, however. Driving 25 miles in Arizona might be considered a quick trip, while 25 miles in New York City might be a major undertaking.

Take a map, and find every school within a circle of whatever distance you are willing to drive. Then check out every single school on this list. This sounds simple, but most people never do it!

Call each school and get whatever information you can. Write it all down in a notebook, so you can easily compare your options and have all the information in one place.

Set up an appointment at each school to come and see the facility, meet the instructor, and observe a kids class.

Step Three: Recon
Depending on the age of your child, you may want to do this part on your own first!

Go visit each school and watch the instructor teach a kids class. If you like it then have your kid take a free class to see what they think (every school offers a free class).

DO NOT sign up at the first or second school you visit, even if you are "sure this is it". Go and see everything that you can, get all the paperwork, and then when you have all the facts together, finally decide.

Remember that there are a lot of possible fees that might not be mentioned up front in ads, etc. Classes may only be X amount a month (less than another school) but then there is a "sign up fee" or "annual dues" or "association fee" or "insurance fee", etc.

Find out about required gear costs and testing fees. These little factors can often make the "cheap" school more expensive than the one that initially seems to cost more. They do not tell you about these other fees when you simply call up and ask "How much are lessons" so be aware of it, and be sure to ask!

For example:
School A: $60 a month, 10% discount for paying for year. $20 testing fee all belts.

School B: $50 a month ($70 if you are in the "black belt club"), $100 membership / federation fee, $50 required gear. $20-200 testing fee dependent on belt.

These are not hypothetical schools, by the way. These are the rates a school I used to work at charged (A) and what one of the other schools in the area charged (B). I am sure many people called both schools and asked "How much are classes" and thought that B was the cheaper school to attend. Boy, were they wrong!

Find out if a contract of any kind is required, or if payments will be monthly. It is not that contracts are inherently bad, but they do commit you to paying for the lessons even if you choose to let your kid quit after 3 weeks! Be aware of this, and if a school does use contracts and you are concerned, ask them if you can sign up for say 3 months to try the class, and if you like it you will sign for the rest of the year. Though they might not like to do it, almost any instructor will agree to this as to not lose out on a prospective student.

The Simple Answer at the End:
OK, at the start of the article I told you that there was a "short answer" to this whole question, right? Well, here it is.

Given a choice and all else being equal, I always recommend Judo for kids.

Today, with Sambo, Brazilian JuJutsu, etc. being more available these might be added as well, just make sure the instructor really knows their art and is a black belt in it, not just someone learning from video tapes to supplement their Tae Kwon Do!

Reasons for Judo include:
1) It is very physical and will get them in shape. I have seen lots of fat "Karate Kids", but even "big" Judo kids are usually more muscle than fat because of the requirements in training.
2) It teaches falling and rolling (good life skills for when you slip on ice or fall off your bike)
3) It develops character through competition in an Olympic sport (real physical competition in wrestling, not abstract competition like Karate "point sparring")
4) Most fights involving kids end up on the ground anyhow, so why not teach them how to fight down there.
5) If your kid uses Judo is a fight, he is not going to be kicking and punching another child which could get them suspended from school and possibly require the other kid to a visit to the doctor for a broken nose or rib. A throw, choke or arm lock can win a fight and leave no evidence (unless they dislocate something). Most people would be unaware that they even did anything, and be wondering why the other kid gave up.
6) Because Judo is so physical, kids in Judo seem to be more grounded in reality than kids from kick-punch arts who only abstractly practice their skills non-contact.
7) A girl trained in Judo may have a better chance of defending against a sexual assault than if she had learned karate or a stand-up fighting art.
8) Because it will form a good basis for further, more serious, self-defense instruction as the child becomes older.

Now, of course, like anything, there are downsides as well:
1) It is a sport and not a combat art since there are no strikes, weapons, dirty tricks, verbal skills, etc.
2) Fighting on the ground limits mobility and vision, and leaves one vulnerable to being kicked by a second assailant.
3) Injury is possible in training, like any other form of contact sport.

Final Analysis:
This might all sound like a lot of work, but it is in your best interests, and the interests of your child, to thoroughly investigate your options before deciding on a school. Like any decision you make about your child's education (public school. private school, home school, college, vocational training, apprenticeships, etc.) it will have definite impact on their future lives, and so you want it to be the best it can be for them.

Like anyone teaching a skill out there, somewhere in the world there is the best teacher and somewhere there is the worst teacher - the rest of them fall somewhere in-between!

Your job is to figure out who among your local choices is the best one for you and your child.

Chich HERE for Part II:
Helping Keep your Child Involved in the Martial Arts
Training at home with your child!
Helping your child to overcome test anxiety!
How to beat "Yellow Belt Flight"!
And more...

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