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Karate kids!

Exercise, discipline, confidence — the martial arts have it all!

Students at the New Paltz Karate Academy show off their skills at a testing tournament. Karate is a great way for boys and girls to achieve fitness, focus and self-confidence.

"It is awesome to see how proud they are of their achievements."   — Tami Taylor, karate mom

We hear it in the news every day: Our children are being bullied physically, emotionally, mentally and now even electronically. It’s enough to make parents want to wrap their children in their arms and never let them go. But what can you do to instill a sense of personal safety and confidence in your children so they can navigate the world alone?

I grew up in a different time and place, but bullying is not new. Adam, my youngest brother, was a scrawny, pimply, timid kid who was always picked on — not only by his classmates, but by our other brothers, who took to pummeling him as sport. Nothing changed until he took karate — then everything did.

Little Adam grew up to become Renshi McCauley, a sixth-degree black belt, owner of the GoNoSen Karate Dojo in Peekskill and author of the book The One Fight You Don’t Want to Lose: Proven Martial Arts Principles for Raising Successful and Productive Kids.

He’s been teaching karate to kids for 27 years and knows the benefits not only from his own transformation, but from that of so many he has taught.

Renshi Adam McCauley of Go No Sen Karate Dojo in Peekskill poses with one of his young students, 7-year-old Brenna Guarino. 

“Although the martial arts were designed for life protection, they have evolved into a whole life character education program,” he explains. “Each child grows in confidence, self-esteem, focus, control, discipline, perseverance, determination, dedication and respect, not to mention loyalty, integrity and awareness.”

Maury Levitz, head instructor of New Paltz Karate Academy, agrees.

“Our students learn so many skills that they can use both in the dojo and in the outside world,” says Levitz, who has been teaching children for 19 years. “Karate gives different things to different people, depending on their needs. For some, it’s confidence and the ability to speak up. For others it’s to learn when to be quiet. We play skills games that teach kids to focus and listen.”

Maury Levitz, head instructor of New Paltz Karate Academy, addresses his students.

Indeed, in a study published in 2004 at Hofstra University, children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) who also studied karate showed a marked increase in academic performance, homework completion and class preparation over those with ADHD who did not practice karate.

Why? According to the study’s author, the mental discipline, structure and consistency of a martial arts environment is ideally suited for these children.

Experts say it’s the respect kids learn — whether from bowing to their Sensei (teacher) or simply standing still to wait for the next command — that can be the most important benefit, carrying over to school and helping to improve behavior and grades.

Vivian Taylor, 9, shows what she’s learned at a recent karate tournament.

Nine-year old Vivian and 5-year-old Violet have been attending Traditional Okinawan Karate of Pleasant Valley with their mom, Tami Taylor.

“Violet is a very hyperactive kid and this is the most focused I have ever seen her,” says Taylor. “When Vivian does something well in class, she just shines. It’s amazing to see the level of confidence they have gained. Neither of them is particularly athletic, and yet both of them are able to be successful and feel good about themselves in this sport. It is awesome to see how proud they are of their achievements.”

Steve Borland, head instructor of Traditional Okinawan Karate of Pleasant Valley, poses with 7-year-old student Connor Thomas.

Ivan Acosta’s three daughters — Briana, 11, Cassandra, 8, and Gabriella, 6 — have been studying karate at Levitz’s New Paltz school about three times a week for years. The older kids started because their dad was doing it, and Gabriella couldn’t wait to join when she was old enough (New Paltz and Pleasant Valley accept students after they turn five).

Acosta says his girls are gaining confidence and the ability to protect themselves, and each has grown in her own way.

“Brie has gained more balance and physical strength, Cassie has learned to focus more on detail and be more aware of her surroundings, and Gabby has become more outgoing,” he says. “The girls say they are getting stronger and know how to protect themselves against bad people and how to deal with bullies.”

An instructor from the Traditional Okinawan Karate of Pleasant Valley school tests Connor Thomas, 7, before he can graduate to his next belt. 

For many like the Taylors and the Acostas, karate is a family affair. Seven-year-old Connor attends Pleasant Valley Karate with his dad, George Thomas. “On days when I’m not feeling motivated to practice, Connor inspires me,” says Thomas. “When Connor is tired and doesn’t feel like going, I remind him of the karate goals he has set for himself and reaffirm how far he has gotten through hard work and dedication. Now I’m a yellow belt and Connor often reminds me that as an orange belt he currently outranks me.”

You might not be able to protect your children forever, but with karate they’ll get the life and character-building skills, as well as the ability to protect themselves.

To find a martial arts school in your area, visit

Linda Freeman is a freelance writer, yoga instructor and swing dance teacher who lives in Marlboro.    

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