Will Martial Arts Help My Child?

Parents often look to martial arts like karate to help their children through difficult challenges or situations. Martial arts instructors, some well-meaning, may encourage parents to enroll their children by overselling or irresponsibly marketing the benefits of their schools.

As wonderful as martial arts are, as real as their benefits are, you can quickly find outrageous claims about them. You can just as quickly find many more logical fallacies about the benefits of martial arts training—they seem legitimate, but science doesn’t (yet) back up these claims. For instance, an authoritative, trustworthy site like WebMD offers rhetorical arguments but scant scientific evidence touting the mental health benefits of martial arts.

We cannot responsibly present martial arts as a panacea for the challenges people face, especially children.

Sending your child into martial arts training without realistic expectations can leave you and them badly discouraged and disappointed, not healthier, happier, safer, and more productive at school or elsewhere.

Let’s look, clear-eyed, at attributes parents often hope that martial arts will instill, and a serious challenge they hope martial arts will help their children overcome.

Focus and Discipline

Martial arts require these qualities—without focus and discipline, students will fail to learn and increase the likelihood that they will injure themselves and others when training. But can martial arts develop these qualities?

In part, this depends on whether a teacher can inspire a student to fulfill their potential. It may depend on the classroom atmosphere. You may need to visit several schools to find the right martial arts program for your child.

But it also depends on the child. The ability to concentrate doesn’t come from martial arts training per se. Children focus on what interests them. If martial arts intrigue them, they may begin to focus on martial arts. Eventually, they may apply this focus to schoolwork—at least in the subjects they enjoy. But if they lack interest in martial arts, martial arts won’t help them concentrate.

We must also consider the cause of a child’s inattention. A child struggling with bipolar disorder, depression, or ADHD may derive many benefits from martial arts training, but parents should not substitute martial arts for medical treatment or psychological counseling. Most martial arts instructors are not therapists, and while their students may find classes therapeutic, they don’t constitute therapy.

Instead, parents should see their child’s martial arts training as a healthy activity that could augment other interventions.

If you have questions about whether martial arts could help your child, discuss it first with your child’s counselor or physician.

When enrolling your child in a martial arts program, talk to the instructor about your and your child’s goals and any challenges they face. That can help you and the instructor develop appropriate strategies to address any issues that arise in class and look for ways to apply martial arts lessons outside it.

Physical Danger

The term bullying trivializes dangerous, illegal behavior. Adult perpetrators committing the same acts could face legal action, from civil lawsuits for creating a hostile workplace to felony assault and battery charges. We should not tolerate that behavior in children any more than we would in adults.

Parents of children who contend with such degradations or violence, often in school, may see enrolling their children in a local martial arts program as an answer.

Martial arts training is no substitute for swift, decisive, direct adult intervention in harassment or violent assaults. It is no substitute for school teachers and administrators doing their jobs and creating a safe environment for the children in their care.

Understandably, parents and their children may grow frustrated with a school’s inaction or insensitivity to their complaints and start thinking about alternative solutions.

Here, you must consider the legal and school disciplinary implications of your child using martial arts to defend themselves against an attack by another child—subjects that exceed the scope of this blog and its author’s qualifications to address. We urge you to consult an experienced lawyer so you understand all of the consequences. A lawyer may identify a better solution than self-defense training.

In addition to addressing the physical threat, parents should not neglect their child’s mental health, as they may need help recovering from the trauma of violence.

Beyond that, again, you and your child need to enter the martial arts with realistic expectations.

To the extent that martial arts training can contribute to your child’s safety from physical violence, understand that it is an imperfect, long-term solution. In most cases, your child will need time to develop the skills needed to fight off a bigger, stronger opponent. They will need to work hard in class and practice diligently outside it to perfect their skills enough to apply them effectively.

Your child may require more immediate help than a martial arts class can provide. You, or they, might feel that the ongoing, immediate threats they face make time and patience into unaffordable luxuries.

But without adequate training, fighting back can leave your child badly hurt, humiliated, and worse off than before. They may feel you or their martial arts instructor betrayed or misled them.

In fact, an assailant may have forced your child to defend themselves before they developed sufficient martial arts skills to face the threat.

We must endeavor to choose the battle space and not allow our assailants to force the time and place of a violent encounter on us. Moreover, we should avoid conflict whenever possible and only use force to defend ourselves after we have exhausted all realistic, non-violent options.

“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight,” writes Sun Tzu in his martial arts literary classic, The Art of War. Sun Tzu repeatedly makes this point throughout his treatise. It bears reading and re-reading.

How Parents Can Help Their Child Martial Artists

None of this should discourage you from enrolling your child in a martial arts class—quite the opposite. The sooner your child begins, the sooner they can reap the many benefits of training, including discipline, focus, and proficiency in the skills and strategies they need to defend themselves.

From their vantage points, children may not accurately chart their progress. They may think they’re improving faster than they are and deserve promotions they haven’t yet earned. Alternately, they may not feel they’ve advanced as much as they have. Either way, encourage your child to work out at home so they can improve faster.

Encourage your child to persevere when classes get hard and help them understand what those difficult experiences can teach them about their ability to overcome other challenges. Keep them grounded and tell them where they need to do better, but tell your child when you see genuine progress. Let them know when you see their hard work paying off.

If you can keep your child on the way, they may come to enjoy the martial arts enough to discipline themselves to their practice. They may learn to apply the same level of concentration to other areas of their life. They may develop the ability to remain calm and focus under pressure.

Your child might learn to avoid unnecessary confrontations when possible, control the battle space in inevitable conflicts, and effectively defend themselves from violent assailants.

With time and effort, your child may find that martial arts have made them physically and mentally stronger, more secure, better adjusted to the stress of school, and happier.

Just don’t expect too much too fast. Don’t let your child do so, either.