Why don’t more parents enroll their young girls in martial arts classes? The trend for martial arts schools to be comprised of mostly boys (from kindergarten age to high school age), with only a minority being girls, still persists for all the styles of martial arts such as karate, jiu-jitsu and taekwondo.
I have witnessed this phenomenon as a student of the martial arts, having trained at a variety of schools over the years. No matter what school, what style, any “kids” class was predominantly male, and even the “family” classes (that mixed adults with children) had few little girls or even older girls.
“Martial arts classes are still overwhelmingly male in large part due to longstanding gender stereotypes that still influence our society,” says Jarrett Arthur, one of the highest ranking female Krav Maga (Israeli self-defense) black belt instructors in the U.S., who teaches children and adults self-defense.
“Young women are generally discouraged from participating in activities that aren’t thought of as feminine: those that involve dirt, rough physical contact, play weapons and mechanics,” continues Arthur.
Ironically, soccer involves rough physical contact, yet many, many girls participate in this sport with their parents’ blessing.
“Martial arts classes involve intense yelling, striking and contact (albeit safe and controlled), which are most often thought of as masculine,” adds Arthur.
However, anyone who’s ever heard the kind of yelling and screaming that a group of girls ages five through nine emit while playing in the street should know that girls can out-yell boys any day.
As for the masculine aspect of martial arts, I recommend that adults who have young daughters attend a large martial arts tournament as spectators. The bigger the better, because the more grand the event, the more variety you will witness in the “forms” or “kata” event.
Among female competitors at the advances level, you won’t see masculinity, but artistry and beauty. At one of the grand-national tournaments I competed in (which attracted the best black belts across the country; that’s how major this competition was), there was even a “musical kata” division.
The woman who won this event in the black belt division wore a shimmering, colorful uniform that was hardly masculine, and executed techniques that required a flexibility that you don’t often see in men.
Nevertheless, many parents don’t see beyond the local martial arts school in which, while passing by, they may hear all the hollering and see a bunch of little boys slugging at pads being held by the instructors. This sets up in their mind that it’s not the most ideal place to send their little girls to.
“The desire to nudge them in a more feminine direction (dance, theater), combined with unfounded, but widely held, worry that they will get hurt, keeps many parents from enrolling their daughters in martial arts classes,” says Arthur. Some martial arts schools incorporate acrobatics, which appeals to many little girls.
As for the risk of injuries, parents take note:
Inside the martial arts dojo, there is little risk of heat stroke and no risk of hypothermia, bee stings, getting hit by cars or falling from heights. There is no pressure to lose weight.
According to the Youth Sports Safety Alliance, basketball, soccer and bicycling lead the way for concussions in girls. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, the top sports (that girls typically play in) for musculoskeletal injuries are basketball, track and field, softball, soccer and gymnastics.
One of the most dangerous physical activities for young girls (and boys) is playground equipment! My niece at age seven fell off playground equipment and broke her arm, yet during that time in her life she’d been taking martial arts classes and never suffered an injury from that.
The Centers for Disease Control says that every year in the U.S., over 200,000 children (under age 14) end up in emergency rooms from injuries related to playground use. Though far more little girls play on playgrounds than participate in martial arts, these alarming numbers are disproportionately way greater than the number of girls who sustain ER visits each year from martial arts related injuries.
It’s common sense: Inside a building, in a room with mats, with no asphalt to fall on, with adult supervision, just how injured can a little girl get from taking martial arts lessons?