Wed
Jan 12 2011 1:49pm

Spec Fic Parenting: This, My Son, Is A Sword

Robert Jordan’s armoryI am a pretty hardcore geek for fantasy. I love science fiction, too, but my true heart has always lain with fantasy. When I was a teenager and my father took me to a gun show, my eyes were all over the swords. I was a little financially savvy at the time, so I had saved up some money, and, with my father’s permission, I bought a dagger. I had owned a pocket knife for a while but this was my first truly honest weapon. (Or at least a semblance of one; the weapon wasn’t sharp.) I was a teenager and my father was a state champion marksmen in pistol, so I had grown up with a respect for weapons. Thus, he had judged me ready.

That same dagger is actually hanging within a long arm’s reach of me as I type this, along with several others. And yes, my children have noticed them.

Before I go a word further, let me preface that I have had extensive bladed combat training. In my particular case, I have studied classic French and Italian fencing as well as some broadsword and Iaido. And as another disclaimer: If you have your heart set on educating your children about blades and combat, be logical and remember, swords are weapons, so safety always comes first.

My kids want to be trained in the sword. And you know what? From the moment I found out I was going to be a dad, one of the things I have always looked forward to is teaching them. With my eldest son having turned five this past year, I am starting to think about how to approach instructing him. After all, he has been begging me to teach him the blade for about as long as he could talk.

From the very first time he asked, I have promised him that I would teach him. But that promise always comes with me enforcing respect and understanding. Thanks to this consistency, my children can by rote say that a sword is not a toy and that hey are not to touch one unless I am there handing it to them. My sons have held dull daggers, but I only let them do so for a little while before I put the steel away and break out boffers.

For those not in the know, boffer is a term for a foam-sword, usually consisting of a solid core of fiberglass, PVC, or graphite. Mine are homemade with PVC cores and blades made of cut up camp pads and cloth covers. (Instructions here.) These things are great. Yes, they can sting a bit, but honestly, as long as they are properly put together, a full grown adult would have a hard time hurting someone with these. (At least, as long as you don’t hit the head or groin, and even then it just stings more.)

I’ve given my sons boffer swords and taught them some very basic things. And I mean basic things, like: “hit with the edge,” “you have to swing if you want to hit them,” and “the best block is to dodge.” I do this on occasion, and they like it. Sure beats the snot (literally?) out of the hockey sticks and old branches I used to use to mock sword fight. Come on, how many of us did that?

My older son will probably be starting karate here in the next school year as an afterschool activity, and if I’m lucky, the dojo will have foam-sword training, too. (My karate dojo did, even for adults.) So in addition to learning some more global mindsets for fighting, he will get some more blade training. What I am still puzzling out is when I’m going to actually put steel in his hands. I’ve been kind of waffling around doing so when he reaches age ten, but I think that is more just a convenient number than anything. Fencing, what I intend to teach him first, is hardly a heavy blade, and while I’m sure reach-wise he’ll be annoyed, it will teach him to parry and lunge better. Broadsword and katana will definitely happen later, with me finding an actual sensei for katana, as my training in that is more rudimentary than expert.

But, should I wait a bit longer or sooner? I first fenced when I was thirteen, but that was because my older brother, who was in college, had happened to notice a fencing class the next town over and I begged my parents to let me go with him. Neither of my parents are swordsmen, though, so it wasn’t like I was going to get training without seeking it myself. I do have some mild worry of my adolescent children fighting duels with each other, but at the same time I think that’d be cool as long as they wear protective equipment.

So, what do you think? Are there any other fellow blade-geeks out there wrestling with these questions that want to chime in? When should our children be taught the sword (let alone introduced to the awesomeness that is the Highlander franchise)? Anyone out there already go down this tricky path? Let me know.


Richard Fife is a writer, blogger, and not “The One,” but he’s working on it. He has also recently started a new illustrated, serialized steampunk novel, “The Tijervyn Chronicles,” that is free to read online, download as an ePub or Kindle file, or even listen to as a podcast. And, for the true stalkers, you can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

25 comments
Henry Kenyon
1. Henry Kenyon
Richard:

I don't have any kids, but I'm a fencer and I think sport fencing provides a very good grounding for other areas of blade combat. I've also done period dueling with small swords and rapiers and I'm very interested in studying rennaissance longword techniques. But back you your question, go with fencing (or Kendo if there are any classes where you live) because of the discipline, exercise and foundation they provide for other types of blade combat skills.

Also, if you want some whacking as opposed to poking, they can transition to saber. Fencing equipment also provides a very safe way to have bouts, as well as the safety training to avoid any serious injury.

Hope this helps, from one blade geek to another.

Regards.
Sean Newton
2. SJN
I teach classical fencing, and I would say that 5 is a little too young. Karate and things of that sort generally work for younger kids because there is a lot of working on forms, and you can make a lot of the training a game. With fencing, it's difficult to do anything that doesn't involve an actual metal bladey thing (which, as you mention, is a weapon). Also, kids that young haven't built up the attention span. That has been my experience, anyway.
I usually tell parents who ask that something like gymnastics is a good thing for younger kids, and they end up staying stretchable which is helpful for fencing later on. Karate probably would work well for this too.
Anyway, since you asked.
Sim Tambem
3. Daedos
My daughter is three, and she has already started asking. I think starting young might be your best choice (depending on the child, of course). As long as your kids are obedient and have the encessary attention span, you might as well teach them the right way. If they don't know what's right, they are just going to do it wrong. As a side note, I like shinai for practice swords. They are light and less painful than bokken (bokuto). They also require upkeep (like a real sword), so they can be an instrument in teaching kids how to care for weapons.
Henry Kenyon
4. Eric Wargo
I'm a historical fencer (longsword, rapier, and other medieval and Renaissance weapons), and the academy where I studied--Virginia Academy of Fencing (www.vafinc.com) in Springfield, right outside of Washington, DC (happens to be the largest fencing academy in the world)--offers introductory classes in historical fencing for kids as young as 9; they offer classes in sport fencing (i.e., foil, epee, saber) for kids as young as 6. So getting your kids started with the lighter modern weapons around age 5 or 6 sounds like a good idea, and will give them a good foundation for learning the heavier historical stuff a few years later.

Boffers are good, and now some companies are making plastic wasters that are also pretty safe--much safer than shinai, in my opinion.
Susan Davis
5. sue
There's probably an actual kendo dojo somewhere near you. Ours has a sizeable kids' program. The forums at kendo-world.com have a dojo finder that could point you in the right direction. If they really are interested in swords, that might be a better option than a commercial karate school, especially the strip mall kind that will try to rope you into a long-term contract.

Depending on where you are, there might also be a naginata dojo nearby. If swords are cool, big honking polearms are even cooler....
Henry Kenyon
6. AminaXIII
I have tried boffer fighting with the SCA, fencing, kendo and aikiken, and I think, for a little kid, kendo is the way to go. You get a very good understanding of distance and spirit, and you could get him started at as young an age as 8. It's extremely fun for everyone.
Henry Kenyon
7. Cara Rawlings
Richard:
I don't have any kids so I can't provide a hard and fast opinion. I am a Certified Stage Combat Instructor with The Society of American Fight Directors. I teach acting and movement for actors at a university. As a stage combat instructor, I teach actors to fight safely with a variety of weapons. We (SAFD) provide certification processes for nine weapons most used in film and theatre. Much of our technique is derived from classical fencing manuals from 1300s on though we have adapted the true martial applications to be safe and dramatically interesting.

Check out www.safd.org for regional workshops that may be in your area. You could check them out and keep it in mind for your children when they are a bit older. We hold certification opportunities for students 18 years old and up, but you will find other opportunities for them to study stage combat as early as middle school.

The great thing about stage combat training is that it teaches people great respect for weapons and for their fight partners. It teaches balance, self and spatial awareness, risk-taking, collaboration, listening and compassion. The work also engenders self-confidence. Ultimately, students develop a greater respect for the fact that violence in film and theatre is artistically choreographed to tell a specific story rather than a re-enactment or glorification of a violent act in and of itself. I believe the art of storytelling is a much more valuable asset in life than martial skill. As far as martial application, I find that stage combat training gives students greater respect for the physical and emotional consequences of violence -- from the point of view of the aggressor and the victim. That empathy is one of the greatest lessons any young person can learn.

I wish you luck with your search.
Steven Halter
8. stevenhalter
I teach modern fencing and I think that 8 is about as young as we've allowed. Part of it depends on the child, of course. Figure out how well their coordination and attention span are developing.
In general, at 5 they probably don't have the coordination to do parries. However, you can probably start doing some footwork. Show them how to stand, how to move. Then, do some "tag" exercises with just the hand.
If you can get the ideas of distance and moving starting early, then they'll be way ahead when they are ready for a blade.
Henry Kenyon
9. Tim MacLir
Hi Richard.

Looks like you're on the right path, especially considering all these well informed and excellent comments. I am currently teaching my 4 y.o. daughter (albeit slowly) the basics of swordsmanship, though admittedly from an SCA fighting perspective. I have taken a good deal of fencing and some martial arts, but for my money, teaching through the use of boffers is an excellent introduction to great weapons and is how I initially learned. It certainly is less expensive than nylon wasters, and much preferred for young'uns over SCA standard rattan!
I fully understand that the "SCA method" is hardly historically accurate, though it is what my daughter will have easiest access to as she grows up.
My question to you is: What fighting group is most convenient to your lifestyle, hobbies, and the like? Chances are, you have many options open to you for your area. There are many live steel fighting groups, historical reenacters, stage fighters, etc. to choose from.
So, good luck on your endeavour, bladesman!
Henry Kenyon
10. Sandy (freelance)
Love your article! We're doing boffer here, since ages 6 & 8 or so. I think learning how to make them is part of the fun (Lukrain's guide spec is easy.) Best was their school-- I got recruited to teach eight 5th graders how to do boffer stage fighting for the school day-long show.

When to do steel? Proper fencing gear is pretty darn safe (but pricey)-- moreso than SCA rattan or bokken. What age? When their boffer use is solid and they want to start.

So yes, swordfighting-- the skill that keeps on giving.
Richard Fife
11. R.Fife
Thank you all for the responses thus far. To others, keep them coming. There are plenty of ideas here, but what I love most is the "YES!" attitude. When I was drafting this article up, I had to delete it three times because I kept letting myself get drawn into trying to defend myself from overprotective parents that would say "You have blades on your walls! Unsafe!" Glad in the end, it stayed on the intended path of "How to start and where to take the training".

And yes, swordfighting is a skill that keeps on giving, either stage, sport, or classical trained, the dedication, attention to detail, and respect that this and any martial art gives is invaluable.
Henry Kenyon
12. Mark N.
Great that you're doing this with your kids. My son is 8 and hugely in love with swords. My background is a mix of SCA, a little stage combat, and Filipino stickfighting. So far we use my rattan escrima sticks most often. He's just a little too excitable at times for me to even think about metal weapons yet. You're the best judge of that with your own child. You're laying the right basis though of respect for weapons.
If there are any Filipino Martial Arts schools near you they might offer classes for children. The FMA introduces bladework right away and has a very graceful flow to the art as well.
Henry Kenyon
13. Robtuse
I've spent a few years at each: Society of American Fight Director certification classes, foil fencing, and Aikido. For the last decade, though, I've settled on wushu as my favorite weapons training. Wushu teaches solo routines, with a massive variety of showy and/or practical moves. Ensuing play at home is more likely to involve choreography than sparring. No age is too young, and flexible kids actually improve much faster than adults.

I agree with the SJN's comment, that contact fencing (with boffers, foils, shinai, whatever) can wait. First comes balance, strength, flexibility, footwork, timing, blade precision... classical sword training emphasised forms first, from Morozzo to Musashi.

If you want to dive straight into the application of mighty and precise two-handed horizontal strikes, try baseball. Teach 'em to bat left-handed for a better on-base percentage.
Henry Kenyon
14. chazmotic
What is the point of sword fighting again? Why not go real historical and teach wooden club or bone club warfare. Forget it. Teach them a musical instrument and they'll get laid a lot more in college.
James Butterfield
15. jimmyb
Surely they first need to wash and wax your car and then build and paint a fence!
Henry Kenyon
16. Cap'n Atli
Our family motto is: "Give your children sharp things to play with, and they'll grow up careful, or maimed, or both." (Uncle Atli's Very Thin Book of Wisdom)

Having a blacksmnith shop, I offered the two boys could have "any sword they could forge." They grew up and bought their own. The eldest daughter, however, is now Master Carpenter at a regional theater. I presented her with several axes over the years for our Longship Company reenactment camping events, and she always wanted a bigger one! Her welding skills have proven invaluable in repairing swords for family and friends.
Henry Kenyon
17. Sal Sanfratello
Richard,

I am the owner of Aegis Consulting, in Ann Arbor, MI. (swordsmanship.net) I've been practicing Italian broadsword in my family tradition since I was 8, and earned my first steel when I was 12. My godchild is now 12, and is ready to earn her steel as well.

How to earn steel:
years of having lesser weapons, such as boffer or foam injected or "bokken" and always using them with weapon respect and courtesy.

Good discipline concerning practice and forms. Bluntly, bad form leads to body intersection, which is THE nightmare.

Earnest Desire

A voluntary, self initiated personal sacrifice in order to earn the sword. What that should be must vary from person to person: I trained for a year in a Jiujitsu dojo in NYC in order to be strong enough to safely and correctly weild the pine 2x4 broadsword my father had me plane for my first "hard" broadsword. He deemded that a sacrifice demonstrating fideliy to the art. I suspect my godchild is currently debating the girly cheerleader/serious actor and sowrdsman choice. I suspect that choice will determine whether she earns steel now or when she get to college.

I hope this offers some context for your decision making in a helpful way.

-S
Henry Kenyon
18. Father of 3 girls
I have three girls and my wife has told me that it is my job to teach them self-defense. I've been doing taijiquan under a traditional teacher most of my adult life. Sword and saber are part of the training. I think you have to go with the child's maturity level and desire to get beyond anything more than basic self-defense. My girls will know how to protect themselves anything more is as you know a serious decision on their part. A father can help and encourage but that is it.

Good luck
Jeff Pratt
Henry Kenyon
19. aldestrawk
(I also posted this to boing boing)

The only concern I would have about teaching your children sword fighting is are you knowledgeable and skilled as a fencer and know the pedagogy of teaching such a skilled sport. The concern is instilling bad habits which are very hard to unlearn. On the other hand, if you just want your child to have fun, then safety is really the only concern.
On the safety issue, safety equipment, masks clothing, and padding should take care of the protection necessary for fencing or Kendo. Otherwise, even with soft or padded weapons you need to protect the eyes or have strict rules avoiding the head as a target. I have engaged in play fighting with my 3 year old son, letting him have a light but sharp (yes, sharp as in very dangerous) rapier while I only defend myself with another one. During this I emphasize what he mustn't do that would endanger other people. This will sink in after a while. I do not let him play such a game with other children, even with a plastic play sword. He also, does not have access to the swords without me being present. At some point, depending upon his interest, we will take the next step where we both don safety clothing and mask and I start teaching him fencing technique with non-sharp fencing swords. I he is still interested, formal lessons and sparring will start when he is 9 or 10. Unfortunately, good fencing instruction can be hard to find. I have fenced most of my life, trained in Europe (I'm American) for four years, competed internationally, and took a two year formal course in teaching fencing.
Fencing is a pretty safe sport. Other than sprains, and the one bone break, I have only been injured once when I was fencing a beginner and his sword broke as we lunged against each other. He did not stop and the broken end was stopped by my pubic bone. One drop of blood only, so, naively, I spent a sleepless night at home before going to the hospital where the doctor told me "If you're not dead by now you'll be fine.
Henry Kenyon
20. EmpressDeborah
I'd say... look in your kitchen. When and how and how much are you introducing your kids to other hazards of human life? How are you handling learning to feed themselves and clean up after in a safe manner? Cooking utensils can be sharp or hot or heavy, occasionally all at the same time. Blades in other times than this had a level of everyday to them, as well as the more martial and uplifted. Your father's daily expectation of safety around his guns probably helped you have the comfort and respect for your edged weapons. Sometimes having a level of being used to something helps translate to the times and places you want to show more respect and care. Good luck and have fun!
~Deborah
Henry Kenyon
21. aldestrawk
Quite a while ago, I was visiting my first fencing master at his home in the country. Another friend of his happened to be there, Howard Jay Patterson, founding member of The Flying Kamarozov Brothers. His 3 year old son was there also and was allowed to handle a replica battle ax, attempting to hit his father as Howard defended himself with a sword. If you're trained well in swordfighting/fencing then there really is no danger as Howard only defended himself and knew how to do that. So, is this the height of irresponsibility? I think not. The child, over time, learns what is dangerous and how to do things safely. Unlike a gun, a young child has no hope of hurting a skilled adult, who is paying attention, with such hand weapons. What's the advantage of allowing this? The child has an outlet to play with something dangerous while being told, and not allowed, to do this with other children. The temptation to do something like that without their parent around is much less. They develop a real respect for the weapon because it is real. Children know the difference. I let my three year old cut food with a kitchen knife (only easy food like an avocado or ripe pear). He doesn't try to do this without my, hands on, supervision. That makes me much less worried about having him in the kitchen where knives are sometimes reachable. At the same time they don't learn to be afraid of knives or swords.
B T
22. amphibian
Good ideas with the training weapons and respect.

I would highly recommend you not take your son to karate. There is little "aliveness" to it. By that, I mean live sparring or real world applications. Karate has been shown to be essentially worthless and many McDojos exist for it.

For a striking art, I'd suggest Muay Thai, boxing or kickboxing. Those have been shown to work over and over again. They have the added benefit of truly developing

As for the grappling arts, I've done Brazilian jiu jitsu for coming up on two and a half years now. It's the best thing I've ever done. Judo and sambo are excellent as well.
Boquaz
23. boquaz
Weapons are weapons, and there is a strong tradition in this country teaching kids how to properly respect and use weapons. When I was a kid, I learned how to shoot, and went hunting with my uncles while I was in high school. The lessons I learned then were directly applicable when I picked up training with swords and spears in college. The cultures of martial arts and hunting may be different, but the underlying philosophies of how to teach responsibility are similar.

There were never guns actually in my house, and I don't think I will ever allow that, but I do have several daggers and a couple of swords, precicely for some of the reasons people have already pointed out.
Henry Kenyon
24. Gorbag
Elric to Stormbringer, upn encountering his father's soul in the afterworld:

"This, my sword, is a father."
Henry Kenyon
25. Jonathan D
I used to teach at a martial facility for all ages including kids (everything from classic foil to historical weapons to MMA to larp combat). Our facility started children at the age of 4 in a foam weapon games class and pre-fencing classes with soft plastic foils. Sometimes it could be a struggle to keep their attention, but more often then not they were able to learn safe behavior. By the age of 6 they could be judged ready to join a metal foil class. Pole arm and steel blade classes usually waited until 8 to 10 depending on maturity level.

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