Tuesday, 25 September 2012

What kind of self-defence should you teach to children?

I have been teaching children’s classes quite a lot recently. The children range in age from five to teenagers. In my school karate classes the whole class are complete beginners whereas in the club classes the children range from white belt to black belt.  This is a huge range in maturity and ability and makes teaching children very challenging.

For most children, particularly the younger or least experienced ones, it is enough for them to learn how to listen, behave and follow instructions; gain physical fitness and endurance; develop coordination and balance, and learn the most basic of karate moves and kata as well as find their courage with some light sparring skills. So, on top of all that should we be trying to teach some basic self-defence skills as well or is that expecting too much?

Can we realistically expect children to be able to defend themselves physically from a determined attacker (whether that is another child or an adult) by teaching them some escapes from grabs, strangles and headlocks; learning blocks and counter-attacks; or doing throws and locks/restraints? We don’t actually allow children to put locks on fully or grab another child near the throat anyway for obvious safety reasons so the idea that a child may actually be able to use these techniques effectively seems implausible.

My experience of teaching children suggests that they have neither the strength and coordination or understanding to effectively learn any physical self-defence techniques. In my opinion, most children are not capable of learning effective self-defence until at least in their early to mid teens; before that they are merely walking through some routines they have learnt by rote.

The problem is, to teach effective self-defence requires a certain degree of realism in both the attack and defence. This is neither possible nor desirable with children. As instructors we cannot order a child to try and hit or grab another child roughly and the child (as a minor) cannot give consent to allow this to happen to them. As adults we freely consent to both uke and tori roles and the inherent risks of injury that this entails – children cannot consent in this way.

Since we can neither teach physical self-defence skills to children in any realistic way and most children are not physically or mentally mature enough to learn them anyway, what is the point of taking children through the motions of learning such techniques?

You may argue that it is worth teaching children the basics of these self-defence techniques in the safe and unthreatening way that we do it because it helps them to develop some muscle memory and ways of moving that will make it easier for them to learn the techniques more realistically when they are older. Perhaps that is sufficient justification for doing it?

However, are there better ways of teaching children to protect themselves from harm? In my opinion most children could protect themselves from most harmful situations by learning about awareness and avoidance – ‘stranger danger knowledge’; knowing safe places to walk and play; crossing roads safely; learning to deal with playground situations non-confrontationally; anti-bullying tactics etc etc…. Most of these situations are dealt with by schools and parents anyway.

So, if a children’s martial art class isn’t dealing with awareness/avoidance strategies and doesn’t teach physical self-defence what should it be teaching? Well, in my opinion, there is much that a martial arts class can teach to children that is valuable: physical skills of balance, coordination, flexibility, and fitness; mental skills of self-discipline, perseverance, courage, respect and determination; social skills such as cooperation, friendship and compassion and sporting skills such as following rules, testing oneself in competition and learning to win and lose with good grace. These can all be learnt through the medium of some basic martial arts moves/techniques.

All we can hope is that we can maintain the child’s interest in martial arts long enough for them to grow up so that they can then learn to effectively defend themselves physically.

What do you think is the aim of a children’s martial art class? In your opinion what self-defence skills do children need?

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Felicia said...

Hi, Sue...

Any literature or website that touts MA classes for children almost always mentions discipline as THE thing that they are aiming to instill. Children are a bit of a different animal in that they do not enter the dojo/dojang alone and sign themselves up for classes - an adult does it for them, so that adult decides if the style, curriculum, etc. are good for the child. In other words, most kids do not step on the mat to learn how to defend themselves (although some do, I'm sure). That being said, helping young folks develop/enhance self-discipline is the one thing I think should be the aim of MA classes for children.

Awareness and avoidance are the absolute first rules of self-defense, true, but the reality is that MA is MARTIAL by nature. Everyone - from the youngest to the oldest on the mat - needs to know what tools they have at their disposal (thumbs to the eyes, palm-heel to the nose, heel to the shin, etc) then it absolutely must start to teach them how to use those tools effectively. Every study of violent suprise attacks that I've ever seen prove that doing SOMEthing when grabbed/restrained/attacked is better than doing nothing. There was a story a few days ago here in the states about a 6-year-old who saved her 4-yr-old cousin from being abducted by a man who was hearing voices (the voices told him to take the child, he said) because she would not let her little cousin go and because she gave said bad guy a ridge-hand he probably won't soon forget. She did something - and that something probably saved a life if not two.

Just my two cents...

Unknown said...

After studying several articles about the Asian culture I accidentally was forced to research a man named Shinichi Suzuki. He was not a martial artist, but a violinist. He developed a style called "The Suzuki method" which was aimed at teaching violin (and later other instruments) in a similar way that we all learned our mother tongue. One of the late Mr Suzuki's statements was words to the effect of "... aiming to develop the whole person".
This is frequently seen in Martial arts with the use of the word "do" meaning "way". I truly believe your first statements about teaching younger children discipline, sportsmanship, coordination and fitness. However, and important point about the Martial Arts is "Martial" coming from Mars, the god of war. It is a self protection art and pugilistic in nature.
Secondly, children can be mean and vicious. Adults are not always there to protect from bullies or child predators. By nature bullies and predators are creatures of opportunity. They will not usually fight back against a person who defends themselves. With children the trick is instilling all of the other attributes and ensuring that they understand that physical contact is the last resort.
Lastly, I would not discount lack of coordination in children. I have seen and read that "gross motor movements" and simple effective techniques can work for many people. The secret seems to be only teaching a child small amounts, and then later building on what has been taught.

Steve said...

The big picture is that most kids will lose interest in martial arts in a year or two. Some won't, and will go far in the sport/art. But most will. And, as with any other activity, be it orchestra, chess team, soccer, martial arts or the boy scouts, what the kids will take into their adulthood are the memories and the intangibles imparted by the coaches or teachers. Things like sportsmanship, work ethic, and integrity should, IMO, be the emphasis in any activity for kids.

Now, with regards to the actual self defense, I think that teaching them to deal with bullies is important, but my personal opinion is that what most martial arts refer to as self defense is a misnomer. Self defense, IMO, is 99% how to avoid fighting in the first place, including conflict avoidance strategies, situational awareness and common sense strategies for avoiding becoming a victim.

Specifically in a martial arts class, stick to what you know and approach them much the way a good coach or teacher would, focusing on teaching practical skills while emphasizing the intangibles.

Charles James said...

Hi, Sue: Wonderful post and some solid thoughts one should consider when taking on young adults and children.

I would, if so inclined to teach the little ones, would focus more on avoidance skills, i.e. to recognize danger and avoid it.

It may be one of those things they should learn along with their parents since mostly these youngsters will be with a parent until their early teens which you addressed in the post.

Since I have not assumed a role as karate-ka with such young persons I cannot say with any authority but this seems to make sense in defense - avoidance, avoidance, avoidance.

When they reach sixteen or so then the other stuff may be appropriate depending on maturity levels and a solid moral compass so as to not be abused, etc.

Make sense?


Sue C said...


Interesting story about that little girl saving her sister in that way, she was clearly very brave. Did the story say whether she participated in a martial arts class? I have no doubt that children, like adults, can really pull something out of the bag to save themselves or a loved one when faced with a threat. I think we all have a natural instinct to do that but whether martial arts classes add to that instinct for children I'm not sure.

I actually agree with everything you've said and yes MA is martial. I think I'm really fishing around for better ways to teach self-defence to children rather than whether we should teach it. Thanks for your input.


I suppose martial arts training can give kids the confidence and courage to defend themselves and a sense of when it is appropriate to do so. Gross motor techniques are probably better anyway - a good kick to the shins or groin is always going to be effective, whatever the size of your foot!


You kind of hit the nail on the head here. The term 'self defence' is a misnomer particularly in regards to children's martial arts classes. I'm starting to think that like women's self-defence, children's self-defence is a bit of a specialist area not dealt with well within a traditional mixed adult/child class. Though I think we should regard martial arts and self-defence as the same thing, in reality they often are not. Martial arts is a medium through which children can learn a lot of good things which are not directly related to being able to defend themselves. I think you are perhaps right in saying that I should stick to teaching what I know ie the practicals and intangibles.


You make perfect sense. I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that children's self-defence (as opposed to children's karate)is a specialist area for which I am not equipped to teach. However, I think I may research into this subject a little more - I think children's self-defence needs are as different from adults as women's are from men's. Our needs are just not all the same are they? Mixed classes do not serve us all well when it comes to actual self-defence - too many assumptions, misnomers and compromises have to be made!

Thanks everyone for your comments - you've given me food for thought!

John Coles said...


While you may not have the answers, you are at least asking the right question.

This is the question that is so lacking in the martial arts, in many respects.

What are we doing? Why are we doing this? Not only in terms of the overall objective of the teaching and training, but even down to the purpose of individual techniques and movements.

Unfortunately, it comes down to definition, whether we like it or not. Define what you're doing, and see whether practice matches theory. Are you teaching self defence, or are you teaching martial arts? A lot of parents take their children to martial arts schools to learn self defence, but they end up learning martial arts.

I strongly support you and anyone like you that raises these most fundamental of questions which then form and threaten the very basis of what we do.

Spirit Defence www.spiritdefence.com.au said...

Hi Sue,

This is a very interesting issue. John's comment regarding people doing martial arts for self defence, but getting martial arts instead, is something I experienced recently with my son.

He is a gentle 9 year old who asked me to teach him martial arts. When I asked him why he wanted to learn, he replied "For self defence".

So, if someone asks me to teach them self defence, I feel a certain moral obligation to make sure they get exactly what they need (and are asking for). When faced with this scenario, but with one of my children involved, I felt more than just a moral obligation to say the least. I wanted to teach him techniques and strategies that would protect him - not just give him confidence, but actually protect him should he need it.

The range of techniques was greatly reduced and we discovered quickly that he can throw a very mean elbow strike and a harder hammer fist. We train defences against strikes, grabs and weapons, and the training has become progressively more realistic.

Admittedly, the training is one on one and, because he is my son, we can do more and go further than we ever could in a group class situation with a different instructor.

The experience has shown me: 1 making self defence personal (ie could my own child protect himself with this) made our training more realistic and, I daresay, honest; and 2 under the right circumstances, kids can be very effective against a surprisingly high level of aggression and resistance.

Great post once again Sue - it also reminded me that my son and I are overdue for a training session. So, once again I will be bashed, kicked and elbowed for an hour or so! The only question remains is: Who will protect me??


Sue C said...

Hi John, Thanks for your support. I firmly believe that if you want the answers you have to not be afraid to ask the questions - even when those questions highlight your own weaknesses

Hi Ash, thanks for sharing that story with me. It's great that you are teaching your son some self-defence. Your experience highlights the fact that children's martial arts and children's self-defence are two different beasts - I wonder how many parents realise that?

The Strongest Karate said...

Lot of great responses already! Here's my two cents:

If I am teaching a child self defense then I would focus on some of the items you mentioned: awareness and avoidance, running away, and finding a grown up.

You did mention one thing that caught my attention: stranger danger. Statistically, at least here in the US, a child is many times more likely to be kidnapped by a relative than he is to be kidnapped by a stranger. It is just that the latter garners headlines while the former does not (not that "stranger danger" lessons don't have their place).

All that said, as a child who had more than a few schoolyard scrapes I can tell you that a few simple techniques go a long way to keeping a child from developing a "victim" mentality.

I was a small kid (short, and thin) so I was a popular target for the bigger, stronger, and more popular kids. And even though I got knocked around occasionally, I had a big brother who could teach me a few things; so I still gave almost as good as I got.

What did I get out of fighting back? Some friends, some enemies, and a lifelong belief that I can stop people from trying to walk on me.

Sue C said...

Hi Brett, thanks for your 2 cents worth. Do you think that the things that kids really need to know are actually taught in most dojos or are they best learnt outside the dojo?

The Strongest Karate said...

Hi Sue,

Honestly, yes and no.

In my case, a few techniques picked up in the dojo was "what I needed to know" at the time.

But in most dojo that I have seen, children are primarily little cash cows that ensure that the doors stay open so that more mature students can continue to train. (And that is no slight on dojo owners - it is economics and good business sense.)

True that there is an emphasis on character building traits like honesty, integrity, and confidence, but I think those lessons are most effectively instilled outside the dojo by the kid's parents and peer influences.

Sue C said...

Hi Brett, alas your statement about children being 'cash cows' is sadly true in many clubs. Hopefully they still get a good quality experience and stay interested in MA until old enough to understand what they are really supposed to be doing. However, if the experience does not match the expectations of their parents then this surely raises some ethical questions...

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sue C said...

Hi Diana, I'm glad your son's enjoying his kung fu, its a great art. Let's hope he never has to defend himself at school...

Fitness Karate said...

When most people think of self-defence for kids, they think of hitting back or using karate. But a large part of self-defence has nothing to do with hitting or striking another person. It involves being aware of your surroundings, listening to your gut, leaving before a problem erupts, using a confident voice and carrying yourself with confidence.

Sue C said...

I entirely agree with you. Thanks for commenting


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