Drive around L.A. today and you won't go far without seeing a studio offering taekwondo, karate or some other form of martial art to white-robed kids. The signs in the windows often promise self-confidence, respect and physical fitness.
With summer vacation upon us, many parents are looking for a fitness activity to help get their kids off the couch and away from the television or video games. Ideally, the activity will be something that children will stick with beyond the summer. But what if it could also make your children better listeners? And what if it could help kids who are hyperactive or diagnosed with attention deficit disorder?
Although there is no scientific proof that martial arts training will make your kids lose weight, listen more attentively or focus their attention, some physicians and others believe that such classes are well suited to accomplishing these goals.
"When a child learns about his body and also learns discipline, it can't help but benefit all of his everyday habits, ranging from schoolwork to eating," says Naomi Neufeld, a pediatric endocrinologist who runs KidShape, a Los Angeles-based childhood weight management program.
"Martial arts is about many things," adds Bong Kyung Kim, a taekwondo grand master who runs the Beverly Hills Martial Arts Center. "There is a mental aspect, a physical aspect and a spiritual aspect. Children are learning physical skills but, equally important, they are learning respect, a sense of order and self-confidence. And, of course, they are having fun."
Fun, of course, is key to finding a physical activity that kids will want to stick with.
Every day at 5 p.m., dozens of kids from 4 to 13 race up the stairs at the Beverly Hills Martial Arts Center to practice taekwondo (translated as "the art of fist and foot"). A gong chimes, and a flurry of youthful energy races across the room as kids form perfect lines based on their ranking. The highest-ranked student leads the class in a short series of verbal exercises that help the students focus before the workout begins.
The workout is an hour of running, jumping, stretching, kicking and nonstop action that brings to mind dozens of little Jackie Chans on the loose.
Alex and Arthur Bane, ages 8 and 10, have been studying martial arts since they were 4, taking classes with their mother, Tamara Bane, an ex-dancer. They have regularly attended classes three to five times a week for several years, and all three have earned the rank of black belt. (Children and adults are tested and judged separately, based on appropriate benchmarks for their age and skill levels.)
"One thing I love about martial arts," says Tamara Bane, "is that the kids are only competing with themselves. In many other sports you not only have a great deal of pressure from the other kids, but you can face horrible criticism and backlash from the other parents if your child is not as good an athlete."
Some doctors are now looking at martial arts for their health benefits, such as weight management. KidShape's Neufeld notes that about 80% of Los Angeles children fail the yearly exam for the President's Council on Physical Fitness.
While many factors play a role in weight control, exercise is at the top of the list. Neufeld believes martial arts are especially effective for getting kids in shape because experience has shown her that children who get involved in these programs tend to stick with them. Moreover, unlike seasonal sports such as baseball or football, kids can practice martial arts year-round.
In addition to weight control, many martial arts schools work with individuals who have physical or emotional handicaps. These challenges can range from Down syndrome to attention deficit disorder. Some children's therapists have noted that children labeled hyperactive or challenged by ADD are responding positively to the type of training that martial arts programs offer.
Thomas Armstrong, a Sonoma County psychologist and author of "The Myth of the ADD Child" (Penguin / Plume, 1997), writes in his book that martial arts skills "can serve as a wonderful vehicle for the training of children who have been labeled as hyperactive or ADD. For kids who seem to be at the mercy of their own chaotic energy systems, these sports offer a chance to begin directing physical and mental energy in a focused way."
While Armstrong acknowledges the presence of neurological differences and the use of medication as one "tool" in treatment, he also suggests that there are other physical and environmental treatments for children diagnosed with ADD that might be effective.
Dr. Frederick Friedman, a Los Angeles pediatrician, also believes in the value of martial arts programs for children, regardless of whether they have been diagnosed with ADD. "In a team sport," he says, "a kid is naturally going to get less attention and too often just gets stuck out in left field. In martial arts the teachers are setting up a very structured environment so the child's attention is focused."
Friedman notes, however, that while martial arts may help a child's self-assurance and concentration skills during class, it's not clear whether those skills carry over into the child's daily life.
While there are dozens of styles of martial arts, the three primary schools that have made their way from Asia into American culture are taekwondo (Korean), karate (Japanese) and kung-fu (Chinese).
The Chinese programs tend to be more traditional, and rarely are schools open to children younger than 13. While taekwondo and karate are similarly structured, with a belt system in which students must learn different techniques at each level to progress, it is possible to move more quickly under the Korean system.
Children with focus and discipline can earn a first-degree black belt at any age after three years of study. In the Japanese system of karate, junior black belts are rarely awarded before age 10, and usually only after a student has been studying for at least six years.
While competitions exist in both sports, most teachers do not emphasize this aspect at a young age. "It is a danger to have students thinking about competition," says Kim. "The value then becomes about winning instead of your own accomplishments. We live in a world full of competition. There is plenty of that. It is much harder to find the time and the place that a child can develop and focus on more spiritual elements."
To be sure, martial arts are not for every child. A child who is uncomfortable with contact sports--or parents who can't bear to watch their child getting bumped and bruised--may opt for a different activity. Friedman, however, says he doesn't believe that martial arts are any more likely to produce injuries than other sports. "I've personally never seen [an injury] that came from a class," he says.
"It was always the horsing around and just having some extra fun after class that brought the kids to my office."