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Do You Want a Karate Kid?



When parents seek an organized sport for their child, they may overlook one of the oldest forms of physical and mental conditioning: the martial arts. Developed to increase fighting skills, the martial arts also promote self-discipline and self-confidence. Other benefits include improved concentration and respect for elders, which carry through to all aspects of life.

Many martial arts schools, also called dojos, teach karate, which is a striking art, to improve physical control, mental acuity and emotional stability. Each school has its own philosophies and methods, so finding a dojo that meets your and your child’s objectives is important.

“We teach our students to do two things in martial arts,” says Mark Carfagno of Traditional Karate & Fitness, located on 1415 W. Genesee St. in Syracuse. “First, replace fear with thought—what would my sensei (teacher) do? Second, we teach the rules of concentration—how to focus with the eyes, then focus the mind by clearing away other thoughts, and finally to focus the body to get it to do what you want.” Imagine gymnasts in competition—they focus their eyes on the mat, focus and clear the mind, and then focus the body to execute the moves.

“Karate teaches young people to first learn discipline,” says Marvin Labbate of CNY Karate & Kobudo Schools at 720 W. Manlius St. in East Syracuse. “Then they begin to internalize the external discipline, which means being respectful to yourself, to parents—by keeping your room clean and taking care of your things—to teachers—by working hard at your education.”

Rick Iannuzzo, of Iannuzzo’s Kickboxing & Karate at 8553 Oswego Road in Baldwinsville, believes one of the biggest benefits of involvement in the martial arts is the school’s mirroring of values practiced at home.

“There’s something about having a third party, the instructor, talking to a child about things their parent is teaching them at home,” says Iannuzzo, “about proper nutrition, manners, respect and keeping grades up in school.” That lesson goes a long way, he believes. Iannuzzo started martial arts with a friend when he was just a kid, and by the time he was 15, he achieved the level of black belt.

Sherry O’Brien, an instructor at Lavallee’s USA Black Belt Champions’ Liverpool location at 318 First St., is the grandmother of seven and a fourth-degree black belt. She started her martial arts training in her 40s.

“We hear from parents that their child is improving in school and that they are better able to concentrate,” says O’Brien. “Teachers can usually recognize a martial arts-trained child—they are not afraid to look adults in the eye and are confident.”

Bridget Ziskind, of Baldwinsville, noticed changes in her two sons and two daughters after their involvement in karate.

“My youngest was shy when she first started, but now she has no problem going out and performing,” says Ziskind. “The kids also learn an aspect of respect for people in charge and after a while, the etiquette that karate requires becomes a habit. They are all good students and are able to focus.”

Because of the way the kids are trained, fighting outside the dojo using martial arts isn’t a problem. They are taught from the start that they are not allowed to engage with non-martial arts practitioners except to defend themselves.

Every martial arts school has its unique and purposeful style. Some are more sport-based, with competitions and tournaments, while others emphasize traditional values.

“CNY Karate teaches the whole child using four components that make up the nucleus of our program: learning and listening skills, social skills, character education and motor skills,” says Labbate, who began learning martial arts at age 10 and has trained in Okinawa, Japan.

CNY Karate’s training focuses on teaching children, first, to speak up if they feel threatened (saying, “No, don’t do that”) and to inform an adult; second, to defend themselves physically from attacks by peers; and third, to be aware of their surroundings and threatening strangers and to respond. Labbate works with a child psychologist and child development specialist to create a comprehensive and age-appropriate program.

“Martial arts has many different methods, like tae kwon do or karate. There are many good schools that offer a versatile, blended style,” says O’Brien.

Ziskind and her husband chose Lavallee’s because the dojo’s strong structure and sense of supportiveness appealed to them.

Other dojos stress similar teachings along with the physical discipline.

“At Traditional Karate & Fitness, we teach honor, respect, and discipline, because we believe karate should be about history, tradition and values,” says Carfagno.

Parents who are considering starting their child in a martial arts program should visit several dojos and observe the instructors and students in action. Schools encourage parents to schedule a visit, and most offer free classes or introductory sessions. Some kids’ first visit to a dojo is with a friend.

“Many kids get into karate by coming to an event at our dojo,” says O’Brien. “We have ‘buddy day,’ where a child can bring a friend.” At an introductory session, the instructor is able to gauge the child’s readiness, both emotionally and physically.

Other schools, like CNY Karate, offer one entire month of karate, with three sessions a week. At the end of the 30 days, instructors evaluate a child’s readiness for learning martial arts. Iannuzzo’s also offers a 30-day trial membership, so that parents can observe their child’s progress and interest in martial arts.

“As consumers, I think parents should shop around,” says Iannuzzo. “Ask about fees for various things, and ask lots of questions.”

What is the best age to get a child started in martial arts? Most instructors say the earlier the better. But a child must be able to keep her focus for the fast-paced 30-minute session. Studios can typically accept a child starting at age 3 (if toilet trained) or 4.

Carfagno says his students begin as young as 4, learning structure, movement, and how to roll and fall safely. “Our system is a lifelong learning; even students with cerebral palsy who can’t kick or jump can learn to utilize their own body to the best of its ability.”

Carfagno has been practicing karate for nearly 40 years. As a young man, he sought a way to cope with the trauma of having witnessed violence in his family, and he eventually became so dedicated to the martial arts that he wanted to share those skills with others. “It is one sport that you can do all your life.”

Ziskind’s twin boys, now 11, were 6 years old when a school friend invited them to “bring a friend day” at their martial arts school. At the time, the boys were not participating in other sports and found martial arts to be fun, but with structure and a good environment that Ziskind appreciated.

“There are so many benefits,” says Ziskind. “The program keeps them in shape and builds their self-confidence.” The boys achieved their black belts (denoting a high degree of competence) when they were 10.

Many families have multiple members, even multiple generations, involved in the martial arts. Labbate says his oldest student was 80 and he has many students in their 70s.

“My older students may not be able to do the sport moves, but traditional karate is the art of self-defense, and also a means of fitness,” says Labbate. “You can do that at any age.”

O’Brien’s husband was a Syracuse police officer when their two daughters, now grown, were young. He saw things that made him realize that he wanted his daughters to be able to defend themselves.

“Many parents come to class to watch their kids, but then become involved themselves,” says O’Brien. “It is a great way to trim down their weight and be fit while learning self-defense skills. It is a lifelong activity.”

When Ziskind started doing karate, the first month was physically hard.

“It takes a lot of courage to get out on the mat and perform something as an adult,” she explains. “At my belt exam, I was nervous but when I achieved it, I felt so proud of myself.”

Both adults and all four children in the Ziskind family actively practice martial arts and appreciate having something in common. Ziskind began taking karate when her children’s dojo began offering morning classes that she could take while the kids were in school.

 “Now I can definitely protect myself and I am more fit than when I started,” says the green belt (about halfway to black belt status).

Iannuzzo offers combined sessions for children and adults, but with separate levels of instruction. In his own family, growing up, he and his brother both achieved their black belts as teenagers, and both their parents became involved later and also reached black belt level.

Since karate uses both hands and both legs, practice helps improve balance and coordination, and it makes one a better athlete and develops physical poise. As adherents stress, the sense of community, the reinforcement of respect for elders, and the clarity of focus make the martial arts a beneficial practice that informs an individual’s whole life.

Sami Arseculeratne Martinez, who has a grown son and daughter, lives in Hamilton with her husband, three cats and assorted backyard wildlife.


© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York