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Sign Me Up!: The Parent's Guide to Sports, Activities, Music Lessons, Dance Classes, and Other Extracurriculars

Sign Me Up!: The Parent's Guide to Sports, Activities, Music Lessons, Dance Classes, and Other Extracurriculars

by Stacy M. DeBroff

The Ultimate Parents' Guide to Making Sense of Activity Mania
Acclaimed parenting author Stacy M. DeBroff offers practical advice on dealing with the stressful phenomenon of extracurricular activity overload, helping you figure out:

  • What kinds of activities best suit your child's personality
  • What the best age is to start your
  • child


The Ultimate Parents' Guide to Making Sense of Activity Mania
Acclaimed parenting author Stacy M. DeBroff offers practical advice on dealing with the stressful phenomenon of extracurricular activity overload, helping you figure out:

  • What kinds of activities best suit your child's personality
  • What the best age is to start your
  • child in an activity
  • What the hidden costs and time commitments for each activity are
  • How to deal with a bad sport, quitter, or superstar
  • How many activities your child can really handle

A detailed breakdown of extracurricular activities from sports to music to troops and groups, itemizing the cost, equipment, time commitment, and opportunities for competition or performance, Sign Me Up! features personalized stories and tips from teachers, coaches, and parents from the MomCentral.com community. Comprehensive, concise, and user-friendly, Sign Me Up! is an indispensable reference you can turn to again and again.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Mimi Doe author of Busy but Balanced and founder of www.spiritualparenting.com In this frenetic day and age when most parents don't have time to brush their teeth, let alone figure out the best sports and activities for their kids, Stacy DeBroff is a parent's dream. Accessible, savvy, and concise, Sign Me Up! is one of the best tools out there for helping familes to create busy but balanced lives.

Brad Sachs, Ph.D. author of The Good Enough Child: How to Have an Imperfect Family and Be Perfectly Satisfied In this thorough, well-organized, and highly readable book, parents can learn how to create meaningful balance in their children's lives. Stacy DeBroff guides parents through the maze of extracurricular programs, provides them with solutions to predictable problems and dilemmas, and helps them establish reasonable expectations. Sign Me Up! is a comprehensive reference that every family will find to be relevant, reassuring, and immensely valuable.

Andrée Aelion Brooks author of the award-winning book Children of Fast Track Parents An indispensable guide for today's busy parents eager to understand the pros and cons of the profusion of extracurricular activities that are overwhelming our children's lives.

Kathy Peel author of The Family Manager Takes Charge: Getting on the Fast Track to a Happy, Organized Home Full of hands-on, practical tips, this book helps parents discover which activities are in harmony with their child's unique personality and talents. A wonderful resource that helps reduce fretting and frustration in every family.

Library Journal
The parenting philosophy of benign neglect may have dominated in earlier generations, but today's parents are a much more hands-on group, always worrying over their progeny and providing them with lots of activities. Hence, unstructured time is hard to come by not only for parents but increasingly for children, starting as young as toddlers. These two books ably address this issue and others, particularly pertaining to children's sports. The authors encourage parents to lighten up while providing some useful guidelines on how to make whatever activities the child engages in a positive experience. Director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia and a father of three children who play sports, Fish notes up front that parents largely determine the nature of the experience, for good or ill. He gently addresses the well-known problem of the pushy sports parent for whom winning is all that matters, and he maintains the same understanding and patient tone throughout his excellent guide. In well-organized and thorough sections, Fish deals with issues from sportsmanship and competition to coaching concerns, quitting and/or taking time off, injuries, specialization, and more. This book is highly recommended for all parenting and sports collections. While sports is also a central part of Sign Me Up!, DeBroff (The Mom Book) covers a broad range of other activities for children, ranging from music, dance, and acting to "intellectual and community activities" (e.g., chess and Girl Scouts). It is in the thorough, focused sections on specific sports, instruments, and classes that the author really shines. In each, DeBroff gives an overview of the activity, the advantages and disadvantages (including the risk of injury for the sport), the best age to start, and cost considerations, along with numerous personal experiences from parents, teachers, troop leaders, and coaches highlighting these issues. There are also several organizations, including accrediting bodies for the activity or type of coaching, listed in a resources section at the end of each chapter. However, the reader first has to plow through Part 1, which contains an overview and background of the current "Activity Mania." This section has a rambling, unorganized feel, and the author's overreliance on bullets to format her paragraphs-often for passages that do not lend themselves to this approach-is part of the problem. Nevertheless, Sign Me Up! would also make a worthwhile addition to most parenting collections because of its superb coverage in Parts 2 through 4.-Kay Hogan Smith, Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham Lib., Lister Hill Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Free Press
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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Two

Deciding Among All the Tantalizing Possibilities

• Between sports teams, gymnastics, karate, dance classes, art lessons, and exposure to a second language, the enticing smorgasbord of possibilities seems endless. Should your child take swimming lessons, join a soccer team, learn to play the piano or flute, sign up for T-ball, or join a Spanish-language or chess club?

• There are just so many choices, all with differing strengths. In fact, it's entirely too easy to overload our kids' after-school hours with multiple activities, accompanied by a never-ending number of car trips and inevitable fast-food dinners. Coupled with growing homework loads, free time for children is becoming as scarce as it is for their parents, if not more so.

• Rather than seeing activities and sports as fun ways to engage our children, our generation has shifted to viewing the immersion of children as essential to their future successes as adults.

Think of Ages 4-10 as the Trial Years

• Your community likely offers a staggering number of children's activities. Determining which are best for your child can be an overwhelming endeavor.

• Treat the years between ages 4 and 10 as the "trial years," a time for your child to explore interests without pressure, discover passions while having fun, and see what she wants to stick with and pursue further. Aim for a wide exposure to lots of different activities and sports, watching to see what sparks your child's interest and passion. These are the years to introduce your child to a rich array of possibilities and opportunities.

• Think of how many hobbies, sports, and other pursuits you have happily taken up and dropped across the course of your lifetime. There is an important value in being able to dabble around in a lot of other things that hold your interest for only a short stretch of time.

• Allow your child to experiment casually with many different sports and activities and then encourage the ones she seems to enjoy the most.

• Developing interests generally come from an exposure to a wide variety of activities. Aim to allow your toddler and elementary school child many experiences across a diverse spectrum of activities. This way she can figure out what she likes, and begin to define herself.

• Remember not to make sweeping judgments about your child's abilities or skills when she's young. Innumerable athletes were told as young children that they lacked the physical abilities to succeed. Ask your child which activities she has an interest in or thinks she might enjoy.

Helping Your Child Find the Right Fit

• Look for clues about what your child might enjoy by how she spends her free time at home, whether it is jumping and climbing, staging plays, or doing art projects.

• Encourage your child to pursue her natural interests. As soon as your child starts expressing her opinions, let her weigh in on choosing her own activities.

• Explain when financial or transportation considerations limit her choices.

• Agree to a trial period for each activity to see how well it fits with your child's interests and needs, as well as your schedule.

• Other factors to consider when choosing an activity for your child:

  • Does your child know any of the other children participating?
  • What do other parents have to say about the class, the organization, and the specific teacher or coach?
  • Will your child have time to get her homework done?
  • How does your child handle: risk taking? losing? winning? playing with others on a team?
  • How aggressive is she?
  • How self-disciplined is your child when it comes to practice?
  • Is your child willing to put in the commitment that the activity requires?

• If your child has no particular sport in mind, then you might try enrolling her in an all-sports program at a recreation department or similar facility. This type of program will give your child a taste of several different sports in a relatively noncompetitive and stress-free environment.

Matching Activities to Your Child's Physique

• Evaluate your child's body type and physical strengths. Some sports, activities, and musical instruments, as seen in the specific activity sections that follow, require a very specific body type. Some types require being as tall as a basketball or volleyball player, while others require being petite like a gymnast or figure skater.

• This doesn't mean that your child has to fit the stereotype in order to have fun or succeed. Many children come up with ways to maximize their abilities or overcome their physical limitations through determination and skill development. Still other children simply love a sport and do not mind that they may not be the best at it.

• Moreover, your child's body can change dramatically during adolescence and puberty, with some children not becoming fully grown until the end of high school.

• If your child is small, find a program that groups kids by size as well as by age. Or if your child is up for it, have her join a team with kids a year younger.

• In many activities, being small is an asset. This ranges from endurance sports like running and swimming to sports like gymnastics and dance that require agility and balance over strength or bulk.

• Each individual sport and activity section of Part II addresses the typical physique or physical attributes required to either get started or excel competitively.

The Role and Influence of Your Child's Friends

• Find out which activities your child's friends are doing. If your child is reluctant to join activities, she may be more likely to participate in an activity that she can do with them.

• Establishing friendships and forming peer groups are of vital importance to your child.

• Many kids pick up a sport because it's social and allows them time with their friends.

• If your child ends up not quite fitting in with her friends' activities, you'll need to balance her social needs with trying less popular activities that may be better suited to her interests and strengths.

• One great benefit of activities is that they enable your child to meet other kids from different schools in your town. By the time she reaches middle school, your child will already know many of her new incoming classmates.

• For those children in private school, activities serve as the link to neighborhood-based friendships.

Pressure to Follow the "In-Crowd"

• Every community has its passions, and at some point along the way, you or your child will undoubtedly encounter enormous peer pressure to join in your community's most popular structured activities.

• Depending on the activities in your community, you'll find the parenting in-crowd heading in a certain direction. Remind yourself to help your child pick activities based on her interests, instead of being swept up in the herd mentality. Sometimes your child wants to pursue an activity or sport not in vogue at the moment in your community or among her peers.

• Those sports will be highly organized, with extensive parent volunteering, lots of attendance at events, and sign-ups that begin at very young ages. Moreover, these popular activities will have better facilities and equipment, more crowds watching, be intensely competitive — which makes both the successes and the failures more public — and garner more peer recognition for your child.

• The real issue is whether the activity is a good match for your child. Even if your child does not excel, she may greatly enjoy being part of her peer group.

• Be willing to think outside the box when it comes to choices. Do not limit your choice to the most popular sports; consider alternative activities, such as fencing or Odyssey of the Mind. So what if soccer is the most popular sport in your area? If your child dislikes it, look off the beaten path for an alternative, whether it be archery, karate, or volleyball.

• If you haven't heard it a dozen times yet, you will soon hear your child announce, "But everyone else is doing it!"

• When every child in your neighborhood starts signing up for the most popular activity, such as soccer, at age 4, your child will be hopelessly behind and struggling to catch up if she decides to embark on the activity a few years later.

• Counterbalancing this should be the unique preferences, talents, and interests of your child. Your kid may be the one to hate softball in a community that lives and breathes it on the weekends.

Fear Your Child Will Be Left Behind by Her Peers

• You may find yourself in the midst of a struggle between what age is too early versus when you will have waited too long.

• If your eight-year-old decides he wants to try a sport, such as ice hockey or soccer, he may find himself way behind peers who started four years ago. It will be hard, if not impossible, to catch up, as well as frustrating and disheartening.

How Young Is Too Young?

• We enroll our two-year-olds in preschool programs and myriad activities intended to enrich and provide social opportunities for them. From swimming or tumbling to ballet or music appreciation, these activities offer parents the chance to meet, talk, and share the experience with others who have children of the same age. Furthermore, it gives you a chance to get out of the house and do something engaging with your child.

• Most children are open to trying lots of different things from toddlerhood up through early elementary school years. Toddlers with Mom, Dad, or baby-sitter in tow can start classes at age 1. Many three-year-olds are already activity veterans.

• Starting as early as your child's second birthday, you will likely feel pressure to start signing your child up for classes and activities, whether it be Gymboree, a Mommy and Me class, beginning dance, rhythm and music, or tumbling.

• Part of the belief underlying this frenzy stems from the myth "the earlier the better." You fear that if your child hasn't mastered a particular skill early, the window of opportunity for that sport or activity will rapidly close. So as early as second grade, your child may be precluded from excelling at this sport or activity, or even participating at all due to a late start.

• Before you plunge in and try to keep up with the parenting crowd, ask yourself why you are signing your child up for particular activities, and whether she's stimulated or overwhelmed.

Who Does the Choosing?

• Who should take the initiative in deciding what activities to pursue, lessons to sign up for, or teams to join? It's best if the desire comes from your child.

• You have a tremendous influence over your child's activities, even when just suggesting a particular hobby or sport to your child.

• Sort out your child's skills and talents from her passions and interests.

• Consult your child before making commitments to classes or activities. Gauge her level of interest, and clarify what appeals to her the most. Is it that her best friend's taking the class along with her, or that she inherently enjoys the activity itself?

• Evaluate how many of your child's activities are initiated by her, and how many have been chosen or insisted upon by you. You also have to factor in the age and temperament of your child in order to figure out where it's best to draw this ever-shifting line.

• It's easy to end up micromanaging your child's choices because you feel responsible for her success.

• Staying deeply involved in every detail of your child's life prevents her from learning to structure her own schedule and find a personal balance between activities and downtime.

• Motivation to engage in an activity will likely change as your child gets older. In preschool and early elementary school years, most children sign up because their parents want them to.

• For your child under the age of 5, you may need to guide her choices much more than you will for her at age 9. If you want an activity that helps broaden your child's interests, think about those that push her 10% against the grain. If your child is not naturally inclined to do anything athletic, find an activity that gets her active without forcing her into competitive, strenuous activities she views as torturous.

• The motivation then shifts at age 8 to activities they intrinsically enjoy, ones they are good at, and ones where they can be with friends.

Following Your Child's Lead

• In order for something to ultimately become a passion for your child, it has to be of her own choosing. Even as a preschooler, she will likely have ideas and instinctive reactions about whether she finds something engaging and interesting.

• When your child makes her own decisions, it forges stronger character development than when you are the one running the show. Children acquire self-reliance and resilience through making mistakes and getting beyond them. In order for your child to develop a strong sense of herself, she has to feel not only free to fail, but to experience failure and move beyond it. The message you send your child when you choose is that she lacks the ability or maturity to make responsible or thoughtful decisions on her own.

• Your child will start having very strong opinions and want to make her own choices between ages 9 and 12.

• Plus, as your child reaches puberty, any prior acquiescence to your activity suggestions or preference often comes to an abrupt halt, and she may promptly decide to drop the activity altogether. To get past this phase, the drive and perseverance has to come from your child, not you. If she selects the activities in which she wants to participate, she'll be more likely to stick them out.

Prioritizing and Goal-Setting with Your Child

• Ask any child under age 8 about the score in a game, and even those tracking it will get it wrong most of the time. There will be games your child's team loses handily only to have your child declare it an all-out victory, as she really has no idea of the score unless debriefed by an adult. For this age group, it's all about the fun, the excitement, getting to participate, being with friends, and building new skills.

• What motivates you to have your child participate and what motivates your child may be vastly different without your even fully realizing the disparity. What do you want your child to get out of the activity in general? Try this exercise of categorizing and prioritizing activities with your child: Each of you rank activities your child wants to do on a rating scale from 5 to 1, with 5 = indispensable to you, and 1 = indispensable to your child.

• It is also important to set meaningful and attainable goals with your child. Concrete goals help because they allow your child to work toward something and enable her to monitor her progress along the way. Goals should depend on age, experience, and skill. Goals could be, for instance, getting in at least three-quarters of first serves in a tennis match. Clarify what your child hopes to gain from participating and support her in her own goals.

• Realize that your child's goals may change throughout the years. It is also important that these goals are not set in stone and that there is some wiggle room. In the long run, it's not natural ability that will keep your child playing and improving, but a sense of accomplishment and joy.

Insisting on Certain Non-Negotiable Activities

• Parents clearly fall into two camps on this issue of forcing your child to pursue a particular activity or sport. Some are totally opposed, while others either care passionately about an activity, such as music being an integral part of their family culture, or consider an activity fundamental, such as learning to swim.

• There may be some things you consider either fundamental "life skills" such as knowing how to swim, or something very important to your family that you feel essential for your child to know, such as learning to ski for family ski trips or learning to play a musical instrument.

• Forcing your child to continue an activity she doesn't enjoy turns it into a control issue, and you risk having a deeply resentful, willful, and rebellious child on your hands. When you make your child do something she does not want to, you will endure endless glares, sullen pouts, and occasional tantrums.

• On the other hand, there are countless stories of athletes and musicians who feel grateful that their parents forced them to take or stick with an activity, and stories from fellow adults who regret either never having tried an activity at all or having dropped out.

Copyright © 2003 by Mom Central, Inc.

From Chapter Eight

Martial Arts


Modern martial arts evolved from various methods of unarmed combat that have developed over the centuries in Korea, China, and Japan. Each martial art is replete with complex histories and philosophies, mostly stemming from Zen Buddhism. Today there are over 40 million people in 140 countries who practice martial arts. Many advanced students consider martial arts to be a way of life and striving for perfection of character as opposed to just a sport. Many children who study the martial arts never enter competitions.

Most martial arts emphasize mastery of the body, integrity, self-defense, self-confidence, and concentration. They also focus on teaching how to harness ki (or ch'i or qi, "internal energy") through meditation and breathing exercises. The instructors usually teach nonviolence and how to avoid conflict, particularly in children's classes. However, some combat styles do teach aggressive fighting techniques, offer weapons training, and allow physical contact in sparring exercises. Thus, you need to look carefully into the type of martial art being taught before enrolling your child.

As a concerned parent, you may be wondering if by signing your child up for martial arts, you risk turning him into the schoolyard bully. It's a popular misconception that martial arts focus on attacking and injuring an assailant. In reality, most martial arts teach that the first line of defense is nonviolence and escape, and strongly discipline kids against aggression, bullying, or showing off. The training, self-discipline, and self-confidence that martial arts teach help prevent your child from either becoming a bully or becoming the victim of one.

General Benefits

• The essence of martial arts is based on discipline, respect, and perseverance, including learning respect for a teacher, classmates, and opponents.

• Martial arts help shy kids overcome timidity or withdrawal, and teach aggressive kids the self-discipline to control anger, hostility, and aggression.

• Breathing techniques teach focus and inner calm, and training sessions help children develop a longer attention span and greater concentration.

• Martial arts training improves physical conditioning, strength, body control, coordination, balance, and flexibility. Plus, training provides an aerobic workout.

• It gives kids street awareness and the ability to defend themselves in a dangerous situation.

• In martial arts, children go at their own pace and there is a constant reward system earning stripes on their belt and then earning new belt levels.

Best Age to Start

• While some children start training as young as age 3, most children start between ages 5 and 9. By that time your child has enough self-control and muscle mastery to punch, kick, and turn safely. However, martial arts is a discipline that can be picked up at any age.

Kids Who Tend to Excel

• All types of children can excel in karate, even those who are not especially athletic, because it does not require sheer muscle power or speed.

• Those children who can focus intensely do well, as well as those who have balance and flexibility.

• Girls thrive in karate as well as boys, and many achieve the ultimate goal of a black belt alongside boys.

Karate for ADD/ADHD Kids and Other Special Needs

• Karate has become known as tending to help ADD/ADHD (attention-deficit disorder/attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) kids calm down, as they learn focus and self-discipline.

• As a result, many martial arts instructors have extensive experience working with ADD/ADHD children and have developed programs that address their specific needs.

What to Look For When Getting Started

• Because martial arts encompass a tremendous number of disparate styles and approaches, from self-defense to deadly moves, you should become familiar with them all before choosing the best one for your child. It is possible to generalize which styles tend to focus on well-being, integrity, and self-defense, but much of the difference lies in the philosophy of each school.

• The most important things to find out about schools are their philosophies on fighting, and the message they give children about violence.

• Visit several schools before committing to one. Have your child take a class, or sit in on one yourself. If you can, make an appointment to watch part of both beginning and advanced classes. If the school offers a free introductory class, have your child take it. Your child should be grouped with others his same size and skill level for sparring. Questions to ask about classes:

  • What are the size and makeup of classes?
  • Are the classes organized by age or by belt and skill levels? Will there be any other students in the class at your child's skill level?
  • If classes have a mix of skill levels, what is the range of belt levels within each class?
  • When are classes offered and how long does each class last?
  • What is the student/teacher ratio? The teacher should be able to give adequate attention and some individualized instruction to each child.

• When looking at martial arts studios or classes, realize that choices differ dramatically and are often lumped under the general heading of karate. Each martial art has its own colorful history and approach to training, whether it stems from the traditional martial arts of Japan, China, and Korea, or in newer American variations. Take your child's temperament into consideration when choosing styles that range from evasive self-defense to offensive sparring training.

Selecting a Karate Master

• Find out who will teach your child's class. A larger school will have several senseis (instructors) whose personalities and teaching philosophies create tremendous differences in training. If you join a school because of a celebrated martial arts master, make sure your child will have access to him in some capacity. Many masters only work with students at higher levels, and will not even come in contact with beginning students.

• Find out details about teachers' backgrounds such as who they have trained with, whether they compete in national tournaments, if they affiliate with a larger school or organization, or if they enter their students into local, regional, or national competitions.

• All instructors should have black belts and have a minimum of three to five years of training. Look for the following:

  • Does he emphasize self-defense and self-control over violence and conflict?
  • How does the teacher behave during a sparring session? What kinds of behavior does he encourage in his students? Is contact allowed? What types of safety precautions are in place?
  • Does the instructor have to raise his voice to control the class?
  • How does the instructor interact with the students? Is he respectful? Are the students respectful of him?
  • Do the students bow as they enter and leave the dojo (training area), and show other signs of respect and self-discipline?

• Ask whether your child's teacher, another instructor, or the head of the school will give the belt test. If someone other than the teacher who has worked directly with your child gives the belt test, this may prove more stressful for your child.

Earning Ranks and Belt-Testing

• The most traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Korean systems offer eight to ten belt levels, from white, for beginners, to black belt. The more advanced belts have degrees of skill within them.

• Students earn new belts by demonstrating proficiency in a number of movements, forms, sparring, and defense techniques. Some schools guarantee a belt after a few months, though most require students to pass a test to rise from one rank to another.

• An instructor who moves students through the ranks regardless of his skills does your child no favors and may be more interested in supplementing his income than teaching your child.

• Some instructors give other awards to the children, such as patches that they can earn or trophies at the end of the session.

Popular Styles of Martial Arts


• This Japanese nonviolent martial art was developed in the early 20th century from jujitsu and means "way of harmony."

• Aikido is considered a gentle martial art, using "soft," graceful, circular movements and letting the opponent defeat himself without causing either opponent serious injury. Aikido does this by emphasizing evasion and escape techniques using minimal effort on the part of the defender. Training focuses on learning to redirect an opponent's attack and to subdue an opponent without using force, but by applying pressure on vulnerable areas such as on the elbow, shoulder, or wrist.

• Aikido is not practiced competitively, though it does include weapons training. Training in this style usually involves some spiritual component, as it is one of the more philosophical martial arts.


• This Korean fighting style, meaning "the way of power and coordination," combines tae kwon do with jujitsu and emphasizes kicks, throws, and joint locks. It includes both "soft" moves, as found in aikido, and "hard" karate-like moves.

• Hapkido's philosophy is nonaggressive, using moves that turn the attacker against himself. However, some of these moves are potentially lethal. Hapkido originally focused on pressure-point strikes, joint locks, and throws, but now also includes kicks and hand strikes.

• Hapkido is not a competitive sport, and is known more as an art of self-defense.


• This traditional Japanese martial art, meaning "gentle (or compliant) way," was also developed from jujitsu in the early 20th century. Its popularity grew as its practitioners began to routinely defeat students of other martial arts. Eventually it became incorporated into the curriculum of Japanese schools. Judo places a strong emphasis on morality and character development.

• Like jujitsu, Judo uses an attacker's moves against him and includes throws, grappling, and other wrestling-style moves. Judo emphasizes the use of leverage instead of strength to throw your opponent off-balance and onto the ground. Once down, a variety of chokes or joint locks are used to force the opponent into submission.

• Developed and taught as a competitive sport, judo became part of the Olympic Games in 1964, with women's judo added in 1992.


• This Japanese martial art, meaning "gentle practice," evolved from the samurai warrior art of weaponless fighting and looks similar to wrestling. It dates back to the 16th century, when kicks and strikes had little effect against the battlefield armor the warriors wore, so chokes and joint locks were used to attack unprotected areas.

• Jujitsu emphasizes evasive self-defense but includes moves designed to disable or kill an opponent if necessary. This competitive form of self-defense focuses on using an opponent's weight and strength against him. The most common moves are throws, locks, holds, trips, and hits.

• Jujitsu is a well-rounded style and involves sparring and weapons training.


• This Japanese discipline, literally translated as "empty hand," is a weaponless form of martial arts characterized by quick, sharp movements. It originated on the Japanese island of Okinawa in the 1600s and developed as a means of self-defense because weapons were outlawed on the island. It is probably the most popular style of martial arts in the United States. Karate is competitive and part of the Summer Olympic Games.

• Karate is a powerful fighting style and involves a great deal of high-energy punching, strikes, kicking, and hard blocks. In training, students learn intense concentration to focus strength on impact. Karate stresses offensive as well as defensive moves, but traditional karate also aspires to the more lofty lessons of discipline, respect, and honor, making violence unnecessary. Forms (kata) and sparring play an important role in training.

• Karate uses a system of colored belts, starting at red or white for new students, and progressing through yellow, orange, purple, green, brown, and finally black belt. The higher belt colors often have three levels that must be achieved before progressing upward. There are ten levels of black belts.


• Kendo is a Japanese form of sword fighting that means "way of the sword," and stems from samurai warriors.

• Practice involves extensive armor (padding, mask with metal bars, shoulder pads, chest and torso protection, gloves) along with a split-bamboo practice sword (ashinai), which is wielded with two hands.

Kenpo/Kempo Karate

• Kenpo (Japanese) or kempo (Chinese) karate means "empty hand, way of the fist." Chinese, Japanese, and Hawaiian martial arts contributed to kenpo's techniques, which were first popularized in Hawaii.

• This style emphasizes self-defense and avoidance of violence. However, it is based on street-fighting tactics and includes forceful moves meant to disable or kill an opponent in a life-or-death situation.

• As the name suggests, kenpo involves a lot of hand techniques, both blocks and offensive strikes. Training involves learning numerous training forms (kata), along with rapid-fire hand techniques, kicks, and combinations.

Kung Fu

• Kung fu is a generic term describing any Chinese martial art (called "wu shu"), and means "well done." Innumerable forms of kung fu are taught, differing in how much power is brought to the techniques. The most popular forms of kung fu can be traced back to the Shaolin Monastery, where monks developed defense techniques against roving bands of robbers.

• This complex style is fast-paced and aerobic. It involves more dynamic moves than karate and includes throws, grappling holds, and weapons. It also uses smooth, continuous moves patterned after animals such as the tiger, crane, and praying mantis.

• Self-defense is also emphasized, but because of the extreme diversity within kung fu, look carefully into the instructor's teaching style and philosophy before enrolling your child.


• This ancient training, meaning "the art of stealth," stems from the feudal days in Japan when ninjas carried out missions of espionage and assassination against warlords. Ninjas had a reputation for mercenary ruthlessness, but training in ninjitsu primarily stresses self-protection and avoidance of danger.

• A relative of judo, ninjitsu emphasizes utilizing a number of styles in order to be more unpredictable to an opponent.

• Although training does include empty-hand techniques and some unarmed combat, most techniques involve weapons such as the sword, dagger, dart, weighted chain, and throwing star.

Shotokan Karate

• Shotokan karate is a popular traditional form of Chinese martial arts, meaning "way of the empty hand," and is designed to be a lethal hand-to-hand combat art.

• Though the style does not involve the use of weapons, shotokan is quite aggressive, including lethal moves calculated to disable or kill an opponent. Much of the focus is placed on balance and one's center of gravity, with movements described as "hard" and linear. It also embraces a fighting theory of "one strike, one kill."

Tae kwon do

• This Korean martial art, developed in the 1950s, is similar to Japanese karate and means "way of kicking and punching" or "way of the foot and fist."

• Tae kwon do is power-oriented, free-form fighting, though self-defense and avoiding conflict are stressed, since moves are meant to be nonlethal.

• Developed as a military art, tae kwon do uses kicks and punches to energize the body, along with breathing and meditation to provide focus.

• This form is known for its high, powerful kicks and impressive footwork. Hand techniques are used only as follow-up.

• Tae kwon do has been part of the Olympic Games since 2000.

Tai chi

• Tai chi, also known as tai chi chuan, is a Chinese exercise and fighting style practiced mainly for its health and healing benefits. It means "great ultimate fist."

• Tai chi's slow, relaxed, graceful movements are stylized renditions of original arm and foot blows. With its focus on balance and stretching, it increases flexibility.

• As a method of self-defense, tai chi teaches using an attacker's moves against him in order to neutralize or evade the attack. Training emphasizes self-awareness.


• A variant of kung fu, wing-chun, meaning "eternal springtime," was named after the female student of the woman who developed this style. It's one of the most popular Chinese martial arts.

• Wing-chun involves explosive moves, using low kicks and fast hands, encompassing both defense and attack moves. This style teaches close-quarter fighting techniques, and emphasizes economy of motion.

• The low kicks and use of an opponent's attack to defeat him make wing-chun a less strenuous sport and one at which a small child can feel successful.

• The style itself varies significantly from one school to another and philosophically embraces change and innovation as part of its teaching style.

Wu Shu

• Wu shu covers martial arts styles from mainland China, and means "martial skills." Wu shu is a competitive sport.

• This popular class of Chinese martial arts teaches graceful and flowing dancelike movements, along with flashy moves and acrobatics. These moves become part of coordinated sparring forms and fighting with spears or swords.

Changing Between Styles

• Most instructors recommend learning the basics of one type of martial art before learning another style.

• If you switch your child from one type of martial arts training to another, discuss this change with his new instructor. Ask the instructor how your child's belt level will translate into the new school's system. He may have to start as a white belt or retake a belt test.

Safety and Injury Concerns

• It's generally only in beginner classes that your child could get injured with sprained toes, fingers and other joints. Make sure the school provides extensive protective gear to protect your child's head, hands, and feet.

• Martial arts schools vary dramatically in the type of equipment and amenities they offer. Some are large and modern, while others operate out of a local gym or share space with a gymnastics or dance facility. Check out the facility where your child will take lessons. The equipment should be clean and the room should be well lit with mirrors along one wall. There should be enough space and equipment for all students, and weapons should be secured away from the children's reach when not being handled by instructors or their assistants.

• If sparring or training with weapons is part of the class, you need to ask:

  • What protective gear do children wear? What safety precautions does the teacher use when children handle the weapons?
  • When sparring, what kind of contact is allowed? Many schools have no-contact rule for sparring.
  • How closely is sparring supervised?
  • How old or experienced do children have to be before sparring or weaponry is introduced?
  • Are children paired by age, size, or experience when sparring?
  • What type of weapons do the older children handle? How many students handle weapons at one time?

Cost Considerations

• Some schools allow children to take a few classes before committing long-term. Ask whether trial lessons are available on a pay-as-you-go basis. Ask as well about the cost of private, one-on-one lessons if your child needs additional individual instruction.

• If you pay by the semester or season, find out if you can be reimbursed for missed and canceled classes or if your child quits halfway through the season.

• Find out which costs you must pay for separately, such as uniforms, belt-testing fees, badges or team uniforms. Karate uniforms generally cost between $40 and $120.

• If the dojo will encourage your child to participate in tournaments, find out what fees will be involved. Tournament entry fees generally average between $15 and $30.

Copyright © 2003 by Mom Central, Inc.

Meet the Author

Stacy M. DeBroff is author of The Mom Book and coauthor of Mom Central: The Ultimate Family Organizer. The ultimate insider for advice, tips, and information, Stacy has won the loyalty of moms across America. She is the founder and president of MomCentral.com, a premier website for moms, and publishes the monthly Mom Central newsletter. Prior to becoming a parenting author, Stacy founded and directed the Office of Public Interest as a lawyer at Harvard Law School from 1990 to 1998. The mother of two young children, Stacy lives in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

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