Impressionable youngsters, captivated by the television exploits of Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles, are high-kicking their way into martial-arts schools, while parents, convinced of the benefits, aren't hesitant to enroll them.
Donna Trabucco originally thought the martial arts were about fighting. She has changed her mind and now praises the benefits reaped by her six-year-old son, Dario, a student at Carrasco Taekwon-Do in Needham, Mass. "It's completely about discipline, respect, and control," she says, "and I think that's related to academic issues ... when you have to focus and concentrate. I want this for Dario's personal growth, it's so adaptable at home and school."
Just how many children are flocking to martial-arts studios is hard to say. A national sports-participation survey indicates 4 million people take classes at least once a week, and of those, at least half are kids. Another estimate puts the growth rate of 12-and-under enrollments at 15 percent.
Studios with a thousand or more students are not uncommon, and much of the influx is from the junior crowd, says Rob Colasanti, vice president of the National Association of Professional Martial Artists, the largest such organization in North America.
"When I went into business 14 years ago," says Steve Carrasco, owner of Carrasco Taekwon-do, "I had probably 80 percent adults, 20 percent kids. Now it's reversed. It's a real kids business."
Children typically come to the Carrasco studio two or more times a week for classes in a large, matted room, with a mirror on one wall, a Korean flag on another, and the words "Strength and Honor" emblazoned on a third.
The atmosphere in the classes is serious, but not sober. The children listen closely to the instructor, who keeps them busy with warm-ups and flexibility exercises or in working on precise, choreographed routines.
A sense of esprit de corps is palpable, as students of different age and skill levels go through their paces side by side, concentrating on meeting the expectations of a demanding, yet supportive instructor.
"Everyone gives you respect," says Danny James, a preteen black belt who exhibits no sense of rank. "I like tae kwon do better than team sports, because here if you screw up they'll try to encourage you, but on a team they might make fun of you."
To youngsters, martial-arts schools offer an inviting environment that mixes elements of Asian culture with a gym/dance studio/clubhouse atmosphere, emphasizing generic values, not specific Eastern religious thought.
Kathy Roth says her nine-year-old son, Jonathan, was drawn into the Master Young Yee Martial Arts studio in Torrance, Calif., as they walked down the street. "The door was open, and Jonathan was intrigued by the artwork," she says, "Master Yee, the owner, is a very loving guy and motioned him in."
A month later, the former schoolteacher is delighted with the changes she's seen in her son. "He's had trouble being with other children, since being too close makes him overly excited," she says. "But with tae kwon do he knows the exact movement to do and where he should be in space, so he doesn't get into trouble like that."
Karl Floitgraf didn't stick with martial arts, choosing soccer instead, but his mother still sings the praises of the Okinawa Karate-do Academy in Watertown, Mass. What got Jeanne Floitgraf's attention was her son's restraint during a melee on the school playground. Karl was one of the few youngsters on the scene who didn't join in. Mrs. Floitgraf chalked it up to martial arts training, which places a premium on never using the self-defense techniques in real-life situations unless absolutely necessary.
Many martial-arts schools have a one-strike rule: one report of misusing skills, and the student is expelled.
"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."
Although there are numerous disciplines - including karate, judo, and tai chi - tae kwon do, which was offered as an Olympic sport for the first time in Sydney, is the most popular among children because it's easy to learn and flashy.
Kids who are attracted to tae kwon do because of the kicking, spinning, punching, and jumping quickly discover the character development at the heart of traditional martial-arts instruction.
The most common goal is earning a black belt, which generally requires three to five years of effort. As in Scouting programs, there are intermediary steps, and by pursuing these, children gain a clear sense of direction and accomplishment.
Mrs. Trabucco says her son recently received his yellow belt. "That night, when Dario was going to bed, he said it was the best day of his life," she recalls, "and I really think he meant it, because he felt that achievement and accomplishment."
"I felt good because I concentrated," Dario says.
As his mom talks to a reporter, Dario drifts off to climb a pile of gym equipment nearby in the studio. His mother notices and tells him to get down. He resists until she reminds him of one of his first lessons: Respect your parents. He gets down.
Kathy Roth says her son's first fling with the martial arts, several years ago, was short-lived, because the instructor took a punitive approach, making the children do push-ups if they wiggled.
The belt system, when properly used, Mrs. Roth says, prevents children from becoming smug about their achievements, while instilling respect for the teacher.
In regular school, she notes, children don't really know what they'll be learning in the next grade. But martial-arts schools are like the old one-room schoolhouses, "where children see and hear what the children in front of them are learning."
"It's step by step," says junior-high student Scott Fisher of Needham, Mass., of the teaching approach. He's earned a red belt during five years of classes and says tae kwon do has helped him have "a good spirit and to never give up."
"Some children start off saying, 'There's no way I can do that,' but with steady progression they get there," says Kevin Stefanek, a fifth-degree black belt and PhD candidate at Michigan State University, where he's affiliated with the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports.
Part of what makes martial arts attractive to both children and parents is their inclusiveness. Whether naturally athletic or not, children can find a niche and proceed at their own pace - and without parent coaches or fans hovering over them.
More and more, Mr. Stefanek says, the martial arts are being used to reach at-risk students, including those diagnosed with learning disabilities.
Some studios, or dojos, guarantee better grades, which gets parents' attention.
Mr. Foxman says this sort of claim is supported by a survey of children enrolled in his school. He's found that 80 percent of the children enrolled for six months or more improve their grades.
"My rule is that kids who are going for a black belt must maintain a B average," he says of the advancement process.
Instructors acknowledge that some parents, who feel they've failed to instill discipline at home, hope their children will learn it in martial-arts classes.
And to some degree, they do. But in teaching respect, self-discipline, and self-esteem, Carrasco says, it's important not to go overboard. "If there's too much discipline, the child doesn't want to come, so you want to temper that," he says.
One concern that parents have, and certain children share, is the rough-looking sparring that can occur in an art like tae kwon do.
Some training is done using katas, in which students run through a series of maneuvers in an imaginary fight scene. Light sparring, however, is viewed as an important tool for learning how to apply what one has learned.
Mr. Colasanti says learning tae kwon do without sparring would be like playing football without blocking or tackling, and that after children see that sparring is safe and fun, previously reluctant kids often are eager to buckle on their protective gear.
Teachers match students by level and emphasize that mastering skills, not beating opponents, is the underlying objective.
"If you spar with the attitude that you are trying to help your classmate, you'll do well," Carrasco says.
Children seem to respond to this activity in which each one's progress is valued and there are no bench warmers.
Mr. Stefanek says that an added plus is the kiyap or kiai, the spiritual yell used in many of the martial arts.
"Kids love to yell," he says. "They'd get in trouble yelling at home, but in martial-arts school, they can be as loud as they want - the louder the better - and a lot of children really get into that."
The martial arts considered best suited to young people's interests and abilities are:
* Tae kwon do - Korean method of defending yourself with your hands and feet, noted for its acrobatic kicks. Flashy and relatively easy to learn.
* Chinese martial arts - incorporates many styles (including Kung Fu), which feature circular motions.
* Karate - Japanese for "empty hand." Characterized by linear thrusts of hands and feet.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society