Debbie Rivera remembers watching her son Isaiah Roman, 5, imitate Power Rangers characters when he was young. "He'd try to do high kicks and use toy swords to pretend fight," she says.
When his interest in Power Rangers-style moves remained strong for several months, Rivera enrolled her child in a martial arts class. "At first, Isaiah thought he was learning how to fight with other kids," Rivera says. "But now, he's more disciplined and understands that his skills are used for safety, not violence."
She wasn't sure if Isaiah would dedicate himself to the art, but she was sure he'd benefit from it.
Now, a year later, Isaiah practices tae kwon do, a Korean martial art, and trains every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at a Bally Total Fitness center in Chicago. He currently holds a white and brown belt, can break a wooden board with his hands or his feet and hopes to receive his black belt, the highest color in rank.
Parents may wonder whether a child is mature enough to handle the physical contact of martial arts. But many professionals point out these classes often focus on teaching moral and ethical values such as respect, confidence and better demeanor. Children are taught that martial arts promote self-defense and discipline, not violence.
"Young children don't understand that [martial arts] is an art form for the mind and body," says Barbara Bowman, professor and founder of the Erikson Institute in Chicago, a graduate school focused on child development. "But they're never too young to begin talking to them about it."
Benefits change with age
Bowman says that a 3-year-old may be enthusiastic about the physical aspect of martial arts, but is not ready cognitively to understand the concept of the sport. Not until age 4 or 5 will a child begin to comprehend that the "fighting' involved is not rooted in violence. "I would be more concerned with a 6-year-old if by that age they think martial arts is used for violence and not for self-defense," says Bowman.
Jaime Garcia, a black belt instructor for Degerberg Academy in Chicago, says a child's readiness to begin studying martial arts depends on the individual.
"Some 3-year-olds may not be mature enough to understand the concept, but there are others who shocked us with their maturity," says Garcia.
In his eight years of teaching, he has never heard of a child using martial arts skills as a form of violence. Children should be taught to keep quiet about their techniques so they are not pressured into a challenge, Garcia says.
"Every day we remind children that martial arts is strictly for self-defense,' Garcia says. "It's not to show off."
Fred Degerberg, owner of Degerberg Academy, thinks that the younger a child begins studying martial arts, the better. "The sooner you get them started, they'll realize that it's part of life," says Degerberg, a member of the National Association of Martial Artists.
He says that children are ready to take classes when they are potty-trained and know their right from their left.
"You want to get them into the habit of training," says Degerberg. "They will learn at a young age to carry themselves more assertively and respectfully."
His academy accepts children as young as 3 years old.
There are benefits to exposing children to martial arts at a young age, agrees Tony Marquez, owner of Extreme Kung Fu in Evanston. Marquez, also a martial arts instructor, says that involving young children can help them develop basic skills such as jumping, running and balance.
"It's great for children to take martial arts because it is easy to train their flexibility and develop their coordination,' he says.
Children who dedicate themselves to martial arts also will learn to value physical fitness, Marquez says. If they exercise when they are young, they're more likely to continue exercising as they get older.
Monica Tapia is the mother of Miliani, 3½, and a former Chicago Parent intern.
Here are a few tips on finding the best martial arts school for your child:
The school. Check the class schedule, as well as the cleanliness of changing rooms and restrooms. Can you do a trial class? Does the school host tournaments? At what age can children begin training? Check the school's credentials, such as whether it belongs to any professional associations.
Cost. Class prices will vary, based on the duration and type of the class. Some schools require long-term contracts, while others don't. Does the school have different payment options? Inquire about any hidden fees, aside from monthly fees. Is the uniform included? Do you have to return it?
Various disciplines. Learn the differences between the martial arts, such as hapkido, tae kwon do, karate, etc. Each focuses on different styles and techniques. One may include more sparring than another. One may use weapons while others may not. Once you've decided on a martial art that best fits your child, inquire about that school.
Style. Ask about and observe a school's style. Do instructors emphasize self-defense? Do they emphasize ethical values? Do they spend more time on physical training?
Class time. Ask about the length of each class. Make sure your child can handle the duration of the class so he or she doesn't get overwhelmed.
Instructor. Ask about instructors' experience and bring your child to meet them.
Observe. Use your judgment and ask questions. A good school will allow you to observe a class. Or ask parents to recommend one. Once you observe a school, talk to the parents and children who are enrolled.