Children and Aikido

Aikido of Northern Virginia does not teach children under the age of 16. Our headquarters school in northwest Washington, DC, Aikido Shobukan Dojo, has a children’s class with a minimum age of seven. Please visit their web site for more information.

I do not believe aikido is appropriate for young children, for two reasons. First, aikido techniques, even applied gently, put stress on the joints. As many former gymnasts and ballet dancers can testify, too much stress on the joints at an early age leads to trouble later on in life. Second, aikido is a complex art. Even disciplined, motivated adults find it quite challenging to learn. In my experience, children do not yet have the ability or the motivation to concentrate at the level necessary to gain anything from the average one-hour aikido class.

Then there is the question of teaching martial arts to children. Although there are schools out there who will be happy to take parents’ money (after the parents have signed a multi-month contract), often they are providing nothing more than a costumed baby-sitting service. Study of the martial arts, like study of any other art or discipline, can produce wonderful effects on the student’s character. But I believe that teaching young children martial arts is like teaching them to drive: it puts them in possession of power before they are mature enough to use it responsibly. Some teachers may say that they teach the ethical use of martial techniques, but I would not want to depend on the developing moral compass of a child when I sent the child off to school; it seems far too likely that the child will want to try out his or her new-found knowledge on other children!

Rather than martial arts, I suggest that parents introduce their children to disciplined physical activity through more conventional sports and arts (such as soccer or tumbling), in which there is a well-established tradition of teaching children. If the child continues to show interest in the martial arts, I would hold that out as a future reward for good behavior and a helpful attitude around the house, as well as good behavior with other children and adults — in short, the child should earn the right to train in the arts. By the way, that’s how it used to be in Japan: if someone wanted to study at a dojo, he or she had to present a letter of introduction to the instructor which vouched for his or her dedication and good character. Unfortunately, this is a tradition that never caught on in the USA.

Parents who look at any martial arts schools with children’s programs should require the following things, at a minimum:

  1. Safety — under no circumstances should children spar, even with so-called safety gear; a lot of attention to breathing, form, and posture is good (as in the karate systems of Shotokan, Uechi-ryu, and Goju-ryu, and other Okinawan styles);
  2. A fun, noncompetitive atmosphere;
  3. Close supervision by the chief instructor;
  4. No pressure to sign contracts or other “package deals”

Also, I recommend reading Aikido for Children, by Gaku Homma. Mr. Homma is an instructor in Denver, Colorado. He has worked extensively with children, and has quite a lot to say on the subject.

Jim Sorrentino
Chief Instructor,
Aikido of Northern Virginia