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Jane Roper

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Jane Roper is the author of the memoir Double Time: How I Survived–and Mostly Thrived–Through the First Three Years of Mothering Twins and blogger at Her writing has appeared on Babble, Salon, The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, and the upcoming anthology The Push: Birth Stories for the 21st Century. Jane lives in the Boston area with her husband and twin daughters.

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Is karate good for young kids?

By Jane Roper |

karate kid The other night, I was reading the girls an alphabet book we got out from the library with somewhat “advanced” words for each letter. Words like “earthquake” and “jetty” and “factory.” The “K” word was karate, and when the girls asked what it meant, I found myself stumbling a little. You can’t really tell three-year-olds that karate is an ancient martial art form, because that would require them knowing the words “ancient,” “martial,” and “form.”

So, I said, “It’s a kind of fighting.” Then added, “But it’s also sort of a way of doing exercise.”

This seemed to satisfy them, and we moved on to L. (Labyrinth!)

Then, today as I was driving the girls to preschool I saw a sign in the window of a Karate studio near us announcing that they now had classes for three- and four-year-olds: “Mighty Mites!” (Cute, eh? Your child, the fighting tick!)

Whenever I see that a class — anywhere, for anything — is being offered for three and four year olds, I contemplate, however briefly, whether we should sign the girls up for it. We have them in a gymnastics class now, which they love, but it only runs for a couple more weeks, and I know that Alastair really appreciates having activities to bring the gals to during the week when he’s looking after them.

So I thought maybe we ought to check it out. Martial arts are supposed to build discipline and focus and confidence and all that. It’s good exercise. And how cute do little kids look in the outfits? (Exhibit A., above).

But then I thought: Wait. Do I really want to bring my daughters to a place where they’ll learn how to kick, punch and otherwise inflict bodily harm? My daughters, who get into a physical altercation of some sort with each other at least two or three times a day?

It’s Elsa in particular I worry about. She’s a very physical kid — strong and boisterous and energetic. And she loves as hard as she fights: more than once she’s knocked me off balance with a sudden embrace or hugged me around the neck with all the tenderness of a boa constrictor. I worry that if we signed her up for a karate class, she would only become more dangerous. Possibly unstoppable.

On the other hand, maybe it would be good for her to have the outlet. If she were given a sanctioned, disciplined place to kick ass, in a safe and mediated way, she might be less inclined to bop her sister on the head every time they get into a toy dispute. And maybe it would help her understand when fighting is and isn’t appropriate. (That’s part of the whole martial arts thing, right?)

Still, I’m very curious as to how instructors manage to convey to children so young that kicking and punching (and yelling, for that matter) in a class is one thing, but practicing on your siblings and friends is another. Are “mites” mature enough to make the distinction?

Has anyone out there had their 3-5 year-olds take karate or the like? What has your kids’ experience been like? Has it been a good thing for them? If nothing else, have they offered to paint your fence or wax your car?


Jumping cowboy, grinning dragon.

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Lead Photo: Steven Yeh

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About Jane Roper


Jane Roper

Jane Roper is the author of the memoir Double Time: How I Survived–and Mostly Thrived–Through the First Three Years of Mothering Twins and blogger at Jane lives in the Boston area with her husband and twin daughters.

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21 thoughts on “Is karate good for young kids?

  1. Rachel says:

    As someone who practiced karate for 7 years, I can say that it definitely builds discipline and focus, and it is a great form of exercise and energy outlet. Most of our karate training didn’t actually involve fighting with others – it was divided into (1) practice of specific punches, blocks and kicks (individually, without a partner), (2) kata (series of choreographed movements against multiple imaginary opponents), and (3) non-contact 1:1 sparring. I assume most traditional karate schools are like that – and they might not even do sparring with the young-uns.

    Our dojo offered mixed classes for adults and children (divided by level), and I can say for sure that the children were some of the nicest, most in-control children I have ever met. Their parents said they signed them up specifically because they wanted them to be more focused. The kids were about 7+ years old, though, so I don’t know what it would be like for 4 year olds.

    I also wanted to say that I can totally relate to what you said about wondering, briefly, if you should sign the girls up for any activity you see for their age group. I definitely do that, too!

  2. Korinthia Klein says:

    I have a black belt in jujutsu (yes really, even though I don’t know if it counts anymore since I had to stop when I was 4 months pregnant with my oldest). Anyway, I’ve often considered signing my kids up for martial arts. For us it’s a time issue, so it hasn’t happened, but the place where we went was very careful about what they taught small kids. They focused on how to fall safely, and rolling, and basic forms as exercise. My sensei said it was irresponsible to teach children how to inflict harm on someone else. They did a lot of cute stuff like throw punches at bubbles.

    So I guess my opinion is that it depends on the philosophy of the specific place you go. Every place is different, and if it sounds reasonable and responsible to you, I say give it a try! I’m looking forward to getting back into martial arts someday, and it would be nice to do with my kids.

  3. Stella says:

    Most martial arts classes emphasize the appropriate time to use what they’re learning, that is, only when in class. The classes I attended personally and the ones I’ve seen for kids all seem to make a big deal out of being respectful, as well as not being violent or using martial arts during “horseplay.” I think Elsa would love karate classes! It’s also an awesome way (like gymnastics) to help kids develop coordination and motor skills.

  4. Cathy Hurst says:

    Jane–LOVE the photo caption!!!!

  5. Annie says:

    Aww, little Grasshoppers! I say do it. Even though it’s self defense, it’s miles away from hair pulling and tackling. It’s so different, they probably won’t even think to associate it with how they brawl. They will also be able to impress their friends when they bring in their new color belt for show and tell, and when they are older, the boys will know not to mess with them by the time they realize that Grinning Dragon and Jumping Cowboy have the ability to kick their asses.

  6. el says:

    We have our 4 1/2 son in karate. The class is really geared toward the appropriate level. They talk about conflict avoidance, respect for yourself and others, not fighting, and although they spar with partners they have been taught to do it correctly. Very close observation 8 kids and 2 senseis. I like it, and it doesn’t seem to have impacted the amount of time my boys fight for better or worse.

  7. Aunt Heidi says:

    When I was a kid I was always told I was too rough. I was like Elsa, I hugged to hard, I hit etc. My parents always had me in sports which helped. I know this is much older than the girls, but when I was 10 they brought an Olympic Judo champion to my summer camp and kids could sign up for a week long training that ended with a tournament. I kicked butt. I scored full points in matches in literally seconds. (like a knock out in boxing). When they presented me with my trophy (still the biggest one I own) the Judo Champion brought me up in front of the whole camp and commented on what a bright future I had in Judo. My mom signed me up right away when I got home. Am I a Judo champ, no, I stopped doing it when I realized boys were more fun…although I did embarrass the heck out of my 6th grade boyfriend when I flipped him on the playground. Anyway, my point is that you should try it becasue you nevr know what they will like. From reading what others have said above, it seems like it may be a wonderful outlet for Elsa. And if it’s not, then that is ok too and at least she can say she tried it.

  8. April says:

    I say do it if you want to and have the money. I am also wanting to get the boys into Karate at some point and see if they like it but I might wait till they are a little bit older like 5. I am so lazy about activities with mine. We don’t have the money and we are so busy with playdates and speech therapy and preschool.

    I know a family who runs a taekwondo studio and I think it would be a very good experience for them. They do teach kids discipline and build flexiblity and teamwork etc. They teach the kids when it is appropriate to fight and use their skills. I have never heard of kids that do martial arts use it to bully kids. I have had kids threaten to use their skills but never actually seen it happen.

    Might be good for my boys to learn some fighting skills so they don’t get bullied physically. I don’t want to have to kill some kid for punching my kid so it might be good to just have my kid know how to punch them back and then they would probably never get bothered again.

  9. Michele says:

    Great post and very interesting discussion! I have an “Elsa” in the house too, very strong and energetic. I had never considered karate.

    Different subject, but I love the costume photo of the girls and your profile pic is terrific!

  10. DKM says:

    My almost 5.5 year old has been taking karate since he was about 4 and we LOVE it! In the beginning, he was taught the kicks and moves, without making any contact. Even when they take the test, they demonstrate in pairs, but do not make contact. He was also taught self-defense moves, which he demonstrated on the instructors. Now that he has moved up and is in class with older kids, he has started “sparring” with pads and equipment (he is obsessed with the mouthguard), but the teacher always emphasizes that they can only use the moves on specific, padded areas and in class (and for self-defense). My son has only ever demonstrated his moves in the air outside of class – I have never seen him make contact with his little brother or anyone else using his karate moves (though wrestling is a completely different story – and the little guy is MUCH more rough on his older brother than the reverse). He really has learned discipline, confidence, and listening skills and I feel good that were he to need to defend himself, he would be able to.

    In summary, I highly recommend (my toddler will be going when he gets a bit older – he is not yet 2) and have only seen positive results!

  11. ChiLaura says:

    I’ve been wondering about this too, for my rambunctious 4 y/o boy. Same concerns and questions. The comments have been informative, so thanks to all you commenters! There’s a martial arts center a block from us — this post may inspire me to check out their philosophy and prices for our next extracurricular!

  12. kristen b says:

    It’s amazing how we are always having the same conversations in our respective homes! I have been debating karate for a while – I know they are young (same as your kids) but I feel so strongly that E needs an outlet for his physical aggression. I feel like karate would be a good fit because of the discipline angle. Thanks for bringing this up – it’s been great to hear what others have to say!

  13. janeroper says:

    Yes, it is *great* to hear everyone’s comments! I definitely think we should go check it out at some point. Maybe they’ll let us watch or do a trial class, so we can see what the deal is, and see if the girls might (mite!) be interested.

  14. C says:

    I have a black belt and often teach the kid’s classes – it’s always age appropriate. The very little ones mostly tumble, kick, punch, doing very controlled stuff, but with (kind, but firm) discipline. It’s remarkable how quickly they fall in line and go from bouncing off the walls to “Yes m’am/sensei, no sir” etc. I went back to it in my 20s after remembering how much I loved it as a little kid, and I highly recommend it to any parent looking for an extra curricular for their children. Definitely shop around, and most schools will offer a free intro class. I’d be wary of any that didn’t, honestly.

  15. EG says:

    I can’t see my 3.5-year-old being ready for this (soccer is his thing – lots of running, but it’s over for the winter) but I’ve heard only good things about kids in martial arts. Let us know how it goes if you try it out with them!

  16. nutterbutter says:

    bit slow to comment here… I have a dear friend who is highly respected in the martial arts – budo karate. He is the most calm, grounded, peace loving individual I know. If I could send all my kids (and we parents) to his dojo I would in a heart beat, unfortunately it’s back in Oz. On the other hand there are proponents of the martial arts that are simply thugs and their schools are fronts for extortionate security rackets. So I say do your homework on the type and reputation of any school. However that is probably more of an issue for older kids who are training in the martial arts. My oldest did do judo classes and oddly enough just recently expressed an interest in taking it up again (at our local YMCA) since her friend is also doing it. However in respect of my two mini nutters (which includes an enthusiastic hugging steamroller) I have the following gut reaction…1. the cost (not just the class but the uniforms) 2. I’d sooner double the number of gymnastics classes they do since they adore gymnastics and can’t get enough 3. they like to practice what they learn at home…I am pretty sure they would practice their karate/judo at home..on each other. I do think martial arts teaches discipline but I don’t think my monkeys are quite ready…at ages 5-6 I’d be ready to revisit the idea. Soccer this year has been an interesting experience, mainly for their daddy who is assistant coach…he calls it babysitting soccer balls , but he thinks it is great fun..esp now that he has removed the notion from his head that they might actually kick the ball once in the season. They have had great daddy time every Sat.
    Just to say…we are looking forward very much to seeing Alistair perform this Sunday.

  17. Jane Roper says:

    Hey Nutterbutter — He’s very glad you’re planning to go! Hope you’ll say hello and introduce yourself.

  18. nutterbutter says:

    I’ll try to not appear as if I’m stalking your hubby, BTW I’ll be the tired one with the 4 year old twin girls.Bahhaaa

  19. Stephanie says:

    I agree with the above posts! I am a black belt martial artist. My husband and I have a dojang, and I teach our “Little Tigers” classes, which are offered for ages 3-6. It is so very common for parents to have questions about whether martial arts is good for young children. I strongly believe that it is! We teach discipline, respect, self-confidence, cooperation, and do drills and activities that build strength, flexibility, coordination, and balance. We do teach kicks and punches, but that’s just a part of it, and at our school, we do not teach sparring to the young children. We have certain rules in class that the students learn, one of which is “No martial arts outside the dojang!” We explain why that rule is so important, and explain to the kids that following the rules is part of being a good martial artist. Most parents that don’t know much about martial arts, and come in to watch a class or have their child try a free class, comment to us that it is not at all what they expected! (and then most of them sign-up!) My advice is to go watch a class. Ask the instructors questions, as they will be very happy to talk to you about it! If you don’t feel completely comfortable with that class, try another class, or another school. If you sign up your child for a martial arts class, I believe you will not regret it!

  20. Lin says:

    Check out the episode of the show Bullshit on this topic and that’s everything I would want to say. :)

  21. Good Day!!Thank you for sharing this blog…

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