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Discipline: How Martial Arts Helps our Kids
by: Michael Sams

Our children face potentially life changing, if not life threatening, decisions every day.  Drugs, bullies, violence, gangs, and predators wait around every corner; our children are their target.  So how does a parent arm their children with the tools necessary to make the right decisions while they are not under our watchful eye?  Confidence and discipline are the key, and martial arts can be the method.

Martial Arts has been recognized by many communities as a way to give our kids the ability to face these day to day pressures.  One of the more successful and nationally recognized programs is the KickStart program founded by Chuck Norris, actor and martial arts champion.   The KickStart program was originally founded to combat drugs and gang recruiting, and is now being taught in over twenty five Houston, TX area schools and twelve Dallas, TX area schools. (Why Martial Arts?, n. d.) 

The results after nine years of operation have been phenomenal. Attendance rates are improving steadily, self-discipline, self-esteem, and respect for others is on the rise, and the sense of TEAM and "belonging" is evident at each of the schools. 

So what is it about martial arts that is so influential on our kids?  The main tenants of martial arts are discipline, honor, confidence, and perseverance.  Each child is started in the program on a level playing field, and becoming more senior in the program ensures they respect the effort that got them to that level.  Martial arts is comprised of a set of choreographed moves called forms that progressively build to the next level of difficulty.  Each set of moves rely upon knowledge of the previously learned moves for execution.  The knowledge of these moves is tested by senior belt members in the organization, and recognized through a colored belt system.

As each student progresses through the belt system, each belt becomes progressively more difficult to obtain.  Subsequent belt advancements require knowledge of more moves, stances and forms.  As part of their progression through the belt system, senior belts are given more and more responsibility in the organization and the success of their lower ranked peers.  This helps facilitate a sense of belonging and team among all the belts.

But are we teaching our children violence?  The answer is deceptively simple.  Martial arts organizations demand the respect that comes with the power being taught.  Most organizations employ very steep penalties if they hear of their students fighting, bragging, or bullying.  "I have a rule in my school, that if I even hear that you are fighting, you come before the class and I take your belt; you become a no-belt," says Charlie Foxman, owner of the Midwest Martial Arts Academy in St. Louis. "In 12 years of teaching, I've only had to take three belts." (Atkin, 2000)  Children attending martial arts training rarely, if ever, need to use it.  They feel confident, walk confident, talk confident, and show confidence in their actions.   This mentality is enforced through every tenant of the martial arts regimen. Forbes magazine explains (Ferguson, 1995): 

Respecting age is incumbent on the martial arts youngster away from class as well. Most studios have rules to follow at home, including speaking properly to adults and not interrupting them, being neat and clean, doing homework and being kind ("Children will not use any karate moves on their family members or friends," one handbill advises). Courtesy and humility,, foreign concepts to many American youths, arc in. Smoking, drinking and drugs are out. Those who stray off course may find their uniformed rank reduced. What might seem corny or harsh coming from mom or dad (if one is around) is hip when issued by a martial arts master. 

If a child with martial arts training is cornered by a bully or even worse, a predator, they have the tools necessary to escape the situation as quickly as possible.  This is a reassuring fact to most parents; knowing their child can defend themselves helps them feel more confident too.  Fundamentally, children in martial arts are no longer seen as a victim, so the confrontations rarely happen in the first place.  

A concern of many parents is the danger of sparring.  Sparring is the application of the forms and combinations learned in martial arts, usually against a peer opponent.  This is an integral part of applying the techniques learned, and like football or hockey, is performed with safety equipment and strict rules of engagement.   There is danger in any type of contact sport, but with proper supervision and guidance, the danger is controlled and minimized.  A majority of schools also sponsor competitions, but this is not usually requirement of the program or advancement.

Many organizations have taken innovative approaches to blending the tenants of martial arts into the children’s everyday lives.  The North Austin Tae Kwon Do Club encourages good grades by placing stars on the sleeve of their uniforms if the child exhibits all A’s and B’s on their report card.  “I feel it is important to integrate martial arts lessons into all facets of a child’s life,”  Jason Thomas the club founder explains, “I want them to understand how important it is to work hard towards every goal they pursue.”  The Atlanta Journal – Constitution explains how a Lilburn, GA organization takes a different approach.  ‘The children receive cards that parents and teachers use to rate their behavior and schoolwork. The ratings are heavily weighted toward promotion tests for higher belts.’ (Diamond, 2004).

Martial arts is a proven effective method of building self-esteem, self-discipline, and goal oriented behavior.  It also provides our children with the means to protect themselves when presented with a threat.   Martial Arts is not the panacea to all of our children’s problems. It gives them a solid foundation to cope with the pressures each endure throughout childhood, setting the patterns and behaviors for a successful transition to adulthood.


Atkin, R. (2000, November 8). It's a kick! Christian Science Monitor, 92(244), p.15.

Diamond, L. (2004, September 14). TOOLS FOR EDUCATION: Black belt in confidence: Martial art class helps kids whip school challenges. The Atlanta Journal - Constitution, p. JJ.1.

Ferguson, T. W. (1995, October 23). Let's talk to the master. Forbes, 156(10), p.138.

Why Martial Arts? (n. d.). Retrieved September 26, 2004, from Chuck Norris' Kick-Start Web site: http://www.kick-start.org/why.html