What to Expect as a Parent

In my last post, I wrote about a few thoughts a parent should keep in mind when they bring their child to a martial arts school. At several points, I brought up the fact that the most important thing a parent can do is ask questions. What are they learning? Why are they learning it? How do you define progress? How can I help? Today, I thought I’d take a few minutes and answer those questions here. True, most parents at our dojo don’t read this blog, but hopefully it will give me a chance to further define my own answers, and perhaps provide something useful for those of you who do visit this site.

What is my child learning?

Your child is learning the art of Kokikai Aikido, founded and developed by Sensei Shuji Maruyama. Aikido is a a form of self-defense that focuses on timing and positioning to accomplish two goals: (1) render an opponent’s attack useless and (2) prevent that opponent from being able to continue their attack. To accomplish these goals, we study how correct timing and positioning can cause an opponent to lose their balance, which then gives us the control we need to end the conflict. One aspect of aikido that differentiates it from other arts is that we recognize that an unbalanced attacker is unable to control themselves, let alone attack effectively. Consequently, it is important for us to understand that we have a responsible to keep our opponent safe once they are off-balance. It is this trait of Aikido that has led it to be called “the gentle art of self-defense.”

At our dojo, we employ the training methods of Kokikai Aikido to study how we can defend ourselves while reducing the risk of injuring our opponent. The techniques we study in our children’s classes are, however, a subset of the full range of Kokikai techniques. For a technique to be taught in a kids class, it must meet the following criteria:

  • It must employ broad, sweeping movements–in other words, it must rely on gross motor skills versus fine motor skills. Techniques that require excessive fine motor skills are de-emphasized for the simple reason that many kids are still learning how to control themselves–to ask them to do place their thumb and forefinger “just so” on someone’s wrist is difficult to do under high-stress situations.
  • It must be effective on both kids and adults. My default assumption is that a child’s opponent is an adult–not a child. As a result, we focus on techniques that we know work on larger opponents. How do we know they work? For one thing, I’m not a tall person, and I’ve used these techniques effectively when training with people much larger and physically stronger than I am. Also, we have plenty of adults who get on the mat at the end of class to help–and they make sure that the kids are doing the techniques correctly. (In fact, the kids often do better dealing with the adults than they do with each other, but this has more to do with the fact that the adults are often trying a little harder than some of the kids do.)

Why are they learning this?

I meet a lot of parents who think that the best self-defense their child can learn is one in which they learn how to punch, block, and kick. I don’t fault parent’s for this mentality–it is one that makes sense to our initial gut reaction of how to keep ourselves safe. But–and I say this with all due respect to striking arts–there are a couple of downsides to this type of self-defense with regards to children:

  • How well does it work against an adult? I had a dad bring his child into aikido class one day. This dad worked in construction–he was tall and strong. He was concerned about why we didn’t teach how to block and strike. (That’s actually not true–we do teach how to punch, just not as much as other arts.) I asked him if he thought a child’s punch would be enough to stop him. The answer is: probably not. (Note: here is where my lack of experience in karate and other arts comes into play. No doubt there is an argument that kids can learn to land strikes that can knock down an adult. But I do wonder how many kids can take the possibility of doing that and turn it a reality. Thoughts on this are welcome!) This is why I like aikido: we’re less interested in hitting than we are taking someone off balance. No matter how big or tall or strong someone is–take them off balance and they will fall down!
  • Striking is not a good solution when in schools. Let’s say your child gets into a fight with another. Let’s even say that your child is defending themselves against an unprovoked attack. If your child responds by striking back, what happens to both participants? Odd are, they both will be severely reprimanded, because many schools have a zero-tolerance policy for fighting. I am not going to say I agree with this policy, but the fact is that it exists, and must be accounted for. In aikido, techniques are often executed so quickly and with such little effort that it often looks like the attacker simply…fell down. In some cases, no one except the two people involved even knew there was an attack going on. This provides an ideal descalation–the attacked child remains safe, and the attacker is left with the understanding that they made a bad choice, yet given the opportunity to change their behavior.

How do you define progress?

As much as I think aikido provides a great means of teaching self-defense to children, I do recognize that it is in some ways a harder art to study. We do not have a lot of forms, and we do not have sparring the way that other arts do. Aikido requires a strong attack in order to learn techniques effectively–and many children are more interested in having fun than they are providing a “real” attack. To complicate matters further, kids are constantly growing and changing. The way a child moves at 6, for example, can change radically when they are 7. All of this can lead a parent to wonder if a child is really making progress.

At our dojo, we expect students to show gradual improvement in the techniques and concepts we study. But we do not expect this improvement to be linear. Just like adults, kids have good days and bad days–some days they’re able to focus, and some days they’re barely able to get on the mat. Some of the things I and other instructors look for are how the child interacts with their partner, how they throw an adult, how many times do they move instinctively versus thinking through each move. To assist in verifying a student’s progress, we divide each kids rank into two levels: a and b. These tests have the exact same technique requirements, but have different conceptual requirements. For example, one test may ask a student to show correct posture, while the next level asks them to show they understand how moving up and down takes someone off balance. Repeating these techniques over two tests also gives everyone–child, parent, and instructor, an opportunity to see if a student is mastering the skills, or still needs help.

Every dojo is different, and every instructor has different goals for the kids in their classes. I’ve listed a few of ours here–and, in doing so, have gotten a little better at articulating what I think is important in a child’s martial arts training. I’d be very interested in hearing what others think–especially those of you who train in other styles of martial arts.

6 thoughts on “What to Expect as a Parent

  1. I’ve been lurking here a bit, and have wanted to comment, but it always seemed rather late when I finally got around to it. I am an aikido yudansha at a small dojo in Southern Japan and end up teaching classes with kids in them and my 8 year old daughter is one of the students. My own initial training was in judo, and I turned to aikido about 15 years ago. I noticed you didn’t talk about ukemi and how that fits in with teaching children. Perhaps it is my background, but I tend to emphasize ukemi cause I loved it as a kid (and still do, though my body doesn’t always!) and I think it is more important because kids are more likely (at least here in Japan) to have more bad encounters with the ground than with adults. Familiarity with martial arts in general and aikido in particular makes questions about the nature of aikido less common, so I’m interested in your thoughts, especially as I would like to find some more things to do with kids.

  2. Joseph,

    Thanks for your comment. You’re absolutely right: ukemi skills are very important. Not only because they are essential for understanding aikido, but they also allow kids to really get a sense of how they can move and what they’re capable of.

    At our dojo, we have a wide variety of warm-ups. Small rolls, large rolls, rolls through hula hoops, rolls over bokken. We don’t do “high falls” or break falls. However, we do include a lot of extra warm up stuff such as army crawls, crab walks, frog hops, and so on that are designed not only to get the child moving, but also to get an idea of how well a child is able to move.

    I admit that we do have a problem with some of our younger (5 and 6-year-old) students when it comes to rolls. Often, they “barrell out” instead of rolling from shoulder to hip. We’re working on this, but I wonder if it’s just a fact that, at such a young age, it is hard to do rolls correctly? Certain at older levels (7 and up) this issue starts to go away…

    I certainly could have written far more on this topic. Ukemi skills, as you pointed out, are critical. So is learning how to be a good audience (during testing and such). Perhaps I should create a “part two” for this topic. Hm…

  3. Sorry, I should have put Joe-too much online shopping!

    I hope you write a part two. How one teaches ukemi skills is really occupying a lot of my thoughts. I’m in charge of the university aikido club and to combat falling numbers (Japanese college students aren’t so interested in joining traditional Japanese clubs) I’ve started teaching aikido in English one day a week, and while my style is rather hard, with mai ukemi, the students are affiliated with Manseido (http://www.manseikanaikido.com/ I don’t know if your comments take html), which emphasizes ushiro ukemi in almost everything, so I’m trying not to conflict with their main affiliation but want them to be familiar with it.

    My daughter had the same problem with barreling out, and being the doting father, we practiced at home with some futon mats in our tatami room. I would take her hand in a handshake and turn and throw her and use the grip to guide her and after a month or two, she was able to a standard mai ukemi. That was in addition to the mai ukemi practice with the other kids, where they would get down on one knee, make a curve with their leading arm and straighten out their back leg and aim to tuck their head between their legs.

    One thing that I loved when I was a kid doing judo was the mai ukemi over someone (or two or even three people) kneeling down. That sense of soaring and then tucking into the ukemi was wonderful, and I’ve often wanted to do it with my aikido classes, but the adults are (rightly) worried about hurting something and I don’t teach the regular kids classes which occur while I’m working.

  4. I enjoyed the post. I think it’s hard to communicate Aikido explicitly to kids, but perhaps not any more than it is to adults. The important thing is just to do it. If they do it long enough, they will get the messages that Aikido has to impart – far beyond the physical control that Aikido teaches.

  5. Howdy!

    One trick that I have used when teaching forward rolls to kids and adults is to make “small rolls” even smaller. Rather than starting with a knee up, start in seiza. The student should place both palms on the mat and donkey kicks one leg back. They then reach far under their body (with the hand opposite the kicking leg) and try to touch the toes toes on the extended foot. Once their head goes below hip level, their body tends to tip over and POOF a nice forward roll is born. Rolling with one knee up can be the next step.

    There you go, two cents…

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