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Kids and Learning the Aiki Arts: Can Children Learn the Art of Peace?

by E.C. Estrella, Jr.

Published Online

“Dad, can I learn aikido?”

How many parents who are Aikidoka long for that question? From the time we start to learn Karate, Kung Fu, Aikido, etc., we not only dream of that day where we think we can defend ourselves (or better yet, a loved one), but also for that day when someone we love takes an interest in martial arts and wants to learn them as well. Many a parent has taken (or unfortunately, forced) a child to a martial arts class, and while some don’t do well at all, many excel. All it takes is a good instructor, a caring parent and a willing child. Unfortunately, when it comes to Aiki arts, there is an additional problem prejudice. Not one of race, religion or sex, but one of age.

I was in for a rude awakening to this fact not too long ago. As a martial artist since the age of seven, I was very excited that my older boy told me just shy of his eighth birthday that he wanted to do “that stuff” I do “in the funny dress thing.” When I inquired however at one of the best Aiki schools in the southeastern United States, I was told, “we don’t take kids under sixteen,” and “they’d probably be better off in (another instructor’s) Tae Kwon Do class… they have lots of kids there.” Considering that this was not only a school with one of the best instructors in the country (in my opinion), but also a school that welcomes martial artists of all backgrounds to its dojo, I was both shocked and dismayed. Then I got curious… wondering if Aikido, Daito Ryu and other Aiki arts were indeed too mature for children.

According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, maturity is “the state or quality of being mature, specifically, a being full-grown, ripe, or fully developed.” If we are to apply this to martial arts training in general and the Aiki arts in particular, very few of us would quality for instruction if maturity was an absolute requirement. In fact, many children are brought to martial art schools to specifically develop maturity and discipline. Why is this different for Aiki instructors (if it indeed is different)?

For this article, I interviewed and researched the schools of several martial artists with backgrounds in traditional Japanese martial arts. They mostly come from arts where children are not the majority of the student population in their schools, but one in particular encourages children to attend classes in Aikido. I also interviewed several parents who have school-age children attending various martial art classes. The results were rather interesting

When asked if Aikido was an art for kids, the result was nearly unanimous no, it’s not. I was given reasons ranging from ” kids aren’t mature enough to understand,” to “they’ll end up breaking someone’s arm in school and I’ll get sued.” Aren’t these the same excuses originally given when Tae Kwon Do schools started popping up nationwide? Why isn’t that the same argument used for other activities like peewee league football and golden gloves boxing, activities with much greater injury and death rates than aikido? Better yet, if aikido is too “adult” for children, what is the age limit? Ten? Fifteen? Twenty-one? If I recall correctly, we now as a nation punish youthful offenders as adults, placing them in adult jails in many cases. If this is so, why not give those same children a chance to develop their maturity and other skills with a qualified instructor?

Parents had strong opinions on martial arts and children as well, although for most, the art practiced wasn’t as relevant. Two parents I spoke to said that they didn’t want their child learning how to be violent, with one of them referencing Steven Seagal movies as her example. Another father told me that they’d enrolled their son in one of the local Korean martial art chains because they had a great afterschool program, but they didn’t want them learning some “Samurai religion or something.” The one parent I spoke to with a child in an Aikido class was from New Jersey, where she wanted both a strong father figure for her son (she was a single working mom). She also did actual research and wanted something that would keep her son safe when walking home from school without making him a bully. As a parent, I admire her dedication to her son as well as the welfare of those around him.

Now, it definitely is up to the instructor who they teach, but when teachers have built-in prejudices of other types (race, religion, etc.) they are admonished by the rest of the Aiki community. Why then are they not when it comes to refusing entry based on age alone? The Aikikai in Japan sponsors the Renseitaikai, which for over twenty years has brought together children from all over Japan and the world to both learn and demonstrate Aikido. The last one held this past July had over 1700 children, and was not only attended but also actively participated in by the current Doshu, Moriteru Ueshiba. If the grandson of the Founder and current Doshu believes that children are an important part of the Aikido family, who are we as Aikidoka and students of Aiki arts to summarily dismiss children from the practice of Aiki?

If the goal of Aikido according to the Aikikai itself is “(a) pure budo (that) comes with the unification of technique, body and heart,” why can’t we start learning Aiki when we are children? With so many discipline problems in today’s schools yet a fear of losing “creative thinkers,” wouldn’t learning how to unify one’s body and heart with healthful body movements be a benefit to a child? Something to think about as an instructor, a student or a parent, isn’t it. Maybe we need to look harder at this, especially in light of the current threats of war, whether the “art of peace” is something we need to encourage our children to participate in.

About the author

Mr. Estrella is a technologist, trainer and lecturer, specializing in technology issues within Native American tribes and organizations. He is also a lifelong student of the martial arts and is currently a student of Nakamura Ryu Battodo, Toyama Ryu Iaido and Daito Ryu. This is his first article for Aikido Journal He may be contacted at: cestrell@email.com.