Or any martial art, for that matter, but I admit my bias.
The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that children and teens aged 8-18 years old are spending 85% of their time sitting. Childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing, not only in developed countries but in developing countries.
According to the International Obesity Taskforce one out of every 10 children is overweight. This means there are 155 million overweight children worldwide, with about 30 to 45 million of these classified as obese. In South Africa, almost two out of every 10 children are either overweight or obese. – Overweight Children: Puppy Fat or Predisposition to Obesity?
Even worse, childhood depression is on the rise. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, one in four teens attempts suicide, and the rate of suicides for kids aged 10-14 has doubled in the last 15 years.
Our kids are struggling with their weight and their self-esteem. Of course, there are no easy solutions to these problems, but we may have some answers and a way forward.
As a partner piece to my perennial classic Eight Reasons Why Women Should Do a Martial Art, read on to see all the benefits a martial art can bring your kids.
1. Exercise (Duh)
Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way first. While training in a martial art might not have the quick gains of something like running, it builds a different kind of fitness. Karate, for example, builds endurance and stamina, with an emphasis on core and leg strength. Aikido builds flexibility and speed. Other martial artists are welcome to weigh in below, but overall, we need to get kids moving. The couch is killing them, and I’m not being facetious: sitting is the new smoking.
2. Building Discipline
Even people who don’t train know that doing a martial art develops discipline, but aren’t entirely sure how. Sure, it is obviously honed in the discipline of just showing up (sometimes, showing up is enough), or finishing a thousand punches, but it is in the tiny things that carry over. It is respect for space (the dojo), respect for presentation (the neatness of a gi), the small rituals of respect that allow the teaching process to flow. By teaching kids to be still, to listen and when to step forward and when to step back, they learn discipline through tiny habits. Never forget the power of tiny habits to build life-long pillars of discipline.
All martial arts are by their nature more gender-inclusive than other sports. Nearly all school sports are split along gender lines, with girls and boys teams training separately. In the dojo, boys, girls and everyone between trains together. It is in the dojo that many lifelong friendships are formed, and kids get an opportunity to meet people outside of their school and home environments, giving them the chance to make new friends. What can be more precious to the shy child? Or more fun for the extroverted?
When I was in primary school, I was hopelessly bullied. I spent every break reading in the library. How could I not be a target? My teeth alone generated a thousand insults. (They’re better now. Braces are best.) But then I found out that judo was on offer in the school hall every Tuesday and Thursday. I signed up, because I thought that if I got big and strong (hah!) then they would all leave me alone. So, I started judo and took to it like a stoner to cereal. Within weeks, the bullies left me alone. I hadn’t threatened them, but as soon as they found out I was doing judo, they backed off. I call this the Hollywood Ninja effect: the minute anyone starts a martial art, other people are intimidated.
But that aside, in the dojo kids will often have to demonstrate their technique in front of the class, and while initially they may struggle to perform, eventually they get used to it. In a world where extroversion is so prized, this is a great way for shy kids to build their confidence.
No, console gaming doesn’t count. I enjoy gaming, sure, but there’s a limit. It isn’t supposed to encompass the entirety of play. I cannot overemphasize the importance of play in childhood development. Suffice to say, this quote covers it:
Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. – The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds (American Academy of Pediatrics)
A good dojo builds play into teaching – kids aren’t adults, and they aren’t meant to learn everything like little automatons.By encouraging play when schools are squeezing it out, we leave a place in the day for this important tool. Whether it’s a game using karate techniques or letting them do cartwheels from one end of the dojo to another, play is built into karate for young kids. And you know, sometimes adults need a chance to play too (except we get too competitive, and it ends poorly. This is why we can’t have nice things.)
How to choose a dojo:
When picking a dojo, try a few classes first before making any decisions. If your gut says no, then look for another dojo. If something seems off, it probably is. There are plenty of great dojos to choose from (like mine!) but sadly, there are a few terrible ones that give the rest of us a bad name.
Let your kid try different styles, and see which one works for them. You’ll know when you find the right dojo for your kid, and with your support and encouragement, it could change their life. They will need your support on this: making it to class consistently and on time depends on you as the parent, and it hurts their training when they miss class for avoidable reasons. By being a good karate parent, you are giving them many gifts that will last them a lifetime.