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Thirteen Tips to Raising Superhero Kids
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Thirteen Tips to Raising Superhero Kids

Years ago a young child was watching me train parkour, he asked his dad what I was doing, his dad told him we were training to be superheroes.

I always enjoyed that idea. I often joke with my wife that we are training our kids to be superheroes. Maybe a better way to think about it is what we are really trying to do is raise children that just have the full capabilities that were normal throughout human evolution

Below is a video of my son’s progression in parkour at 8 years old. He is starting to strongly stand out from his peers and his sisters have similarly exceptional abilities.

I believe that he and his sisters have developed their abilities because we have structured their lives around 13 simple foundations to facilitate healthy movement developments. 

The thirteen foundations:

Let's talk about the Results...

In addition to high levels of specific parkour skills, my son can claim…

1. A max vertical jump of 19 inches.
2. A standing vertical jump of 14 inches
3. A standing Broad jump of 6 feet
4. 15 pull ups in a set,
5. A press from tuck planche to l-sit.
6. 50 meter sprint of 8.6 seconds
7. A Running long jump of 10 feet 6 inches
8. He taught himself to backflip and frontflip on our trampoline at 6 years old
9. He can lache a distance of 7 feet
10. Wall run 8 feet.
11. His coaches told me he was by far the best rugby player on his team this year
12. He won his first Ninja Warrior competition in April
13. He won 7 of his 12 sprint races this summer and every long jump competition
14. He is the best kickboxer and wrestler his age at his MMA gym.

My oldest daughter is less athletically driven, but even so, at 10 years old she can…

1. Do 12 pull ups
2. Has a standing vertical jump of 14 inches
3. She has just picked up rock climbing 2 months ago and is already climbing V3’s.

My youngest daughter who just turned five and shares her brother’s high athletic drive can…

1. Do 4 pull ups
2. An 8 inch vertical jump
3. Perfect cartwheels
4. A very good back bridge
5. She is starting to develop front walkovers and front flips.
6. She also won over half her races this summer and all of her long jumps

Looking at how their numbers compare to average development we can see that my son’s…

1. Standing vertical jump would place him in the 70th percentile for 12-13 year old boys (4 years older than him)
2. His broad jump is near the 80th percentile for 12-13 year old boys
3. His pull ups would place him in the 95th percentile among adults.
4. His 50 meter sprint would place him in the 90 percentile for 10 year old boys.

My oldest daughter’s…
1. Her 14 inch vertical would place her in the 80th percentile for 16-17 year old girls
2. Her 12 pull ups would place her in 99th percentile for adult women.

My youngest daughter’s…
1. 8 inch vertical would place her in the 90th percentile for 6-7 year girls.
2. Her 4 pull ups would place her above average for adult female athletes

Granted I could only find a good comparison for Spanish kids and German kids, I doubt it is that different in the states.

Maybe my kids are future superheroes… or maybe what we perceive as normal is actually the result of living in a world that is profoundly movement deprived.

So how does our family apply these principles to daily life?

#1) Daily Unstructured Outdoor Activity

Since the kids were little we have taken them on regular walks. We have encouraged them to climb trees in our backyard. We have built outdoor play environments for them and did as much as we could to encourage outdoor time.

During the warmer months we usually eat dinners picnic style in our yard or at a local park. We do allow more indoor time during the coldest and darkest winter months but the first hour after school is for outdoor play time.

If it is absolutely pouring or a blizzard we will make an exception and get extra outdoor time later in the week. The kids can also earn extra screen time or a hot cocoa for spending more time outdoors playing on cold and wet days.

#2) Daily Unstructured Play Time

My wife and I both prize education and our kids spend a lot of time reading. Recently the older two have taken up listening to history podcasts. With that said we have been careful not to overschedule our children with extra educational activities.

At least an hour every day, and most of the weekends, is left unstructured. We have also chosen to take the kids to open gyms at our local ninja gym as their primary locomotor development activity. We choose this rather than structured gymnastics or parkour classes so they can have more autonomy and play in their lives.

#3) Freedom to do Parkour in the Back Yard or House

We have always encouraged our kids to climb our couches, jump on the beds, even climb the outside of the house when we had a house that had a flat roof.

Over the last three years we have assigned one room in the house as a play space. We stock our rumpus room with foam swords, rock climbing mats, a balance beam, throw pillows, and a weight bench that doubles as a parkour vault.

The kids will often choose to spend an evening at home, doing obstacle courses, practicing acrobatics or just dancing. A key question you should ask as a parent is “how are the spaces my kids live in affording them play? And how can I afford them more complete and more exciting opportunities for play?”

#4) Roughhousing Encouraged Between the Kids

Ever since the kids were young the rules were that you can hit, tackle, and grapple with anyone in the house as long as you make sure they are ready for it.

#5) Roughhousing with Dad

I try to roughhouse with my kids a little bit every day, and have since they were crawling.

When they were little I would hold them overhead, swing and flip them, and heckle them as they were moving around. I still do that to some degree, but we have also evolved to more directed wrestling games.

We in fact have a whole vocabulary of specific roughhousing games the kids love.
Favorites include: this is my couch, nobody better jump on me , and of course tickle monster (with the younger kids).

#6) Barefoot or Minimalist Shoes Whenever Possible

In the house the kids are barefoot and when outdoors they are allowed to be barefoot unless it’s very cold. At school or at the gym we have them wear zero drop shoes with flexible soles. See Kai Run shoes are a favorite brand.

This is a major pet peeve. The thick soled shoes most parents have their kids wearing are extremely bad for health development of the feet, ankles, knees, and gait. Please do not put your kids in clunky shoes. Or shoes chosen for style rather than health and function.

#7) Minimum of One Specifically Athletic Activity a Week

For us physical education is as important as academic education. It is so easy for kids to be movement-malnourished today. We live in a time when recesses are shortened or eliminated and PE is no more than twice a week at best. Worst of all, neighborhoods where kids are allowed to form active play groups are increasingly rare.

To make up for this gap you need times in your schedule specifically focused on athletic development. As a lifelong athlete, I also know I would have appreciated getting exposure to a wider range of skills from an early age.

Finally, we even organize our family trips in part around athletic activities. So we go on trips to Leavenworth to rock climb every year. When we visit my wife’s family in California we make trips to special nature spaces and nearby parkour gyms.

#8) Strong Focus on Child Autonomy in Choosing Athletic Activities

The kids get a lot of choice in what activities they do. They can do more than one activity if they want but one athletic activity is the base commitment and they get to choose what they are committed to.

Right now that means once a week each for rock climbing and ninja open gym for my oldest daughter. Once a week martial arts classes and one to three ninja open gyms for my son.

Finally for my youngest daughter it is one to three ninja open gyms and the occasional rock climbing session. We also go to a tramp gym semi-regularly. As we approach summer the kids will be joining me for weekly outdoor sessions.

#9) No Early Sport Specialization or Intensive Training

This is big too. I firmly believe younger kids should do very little formal strength and conditioning work.

The research shows that many kids are suffering injuries and burnout from being trained as specialized athletes from an early age. As exceptional as some of the kids’ accomplishments are, we are really conscious about not trying to push them to be prodigies.

None of the kids have ever done any programmed aerobic, sprint, jump, or weight lifting training. We did zero programmed sprinting last summer when we were racing.

In fact during the strength & conditioning sections of my son’s martial classes, I have asked and received permission to take him aside and do gymnastics line drills combined with specific martial skills to warm him up instead. We do some push ups and some gymnastics isometric skills but that is the extent of the conditioning he does at martial arts.

Similarly while my son has competed 3 times in ninja warrior he only does open gyms rather than the team classes. During those open gyms he mostly chooses parkour based activities or playing tag with his friends.

#10) Whole Food Diet

This is such a difficult topic in the modern world. The unfortunate reality is even most health conscious families are feeding their kids in an obesogenic way.

The ubiquity of junk food in kids’ spaces is shocking. When our kids are invited to birthday parties they now not only get cake and ice cream they also get candy good bags to take home.

During sports practices they will be fed sugar laden “sports” drinks, hot dogs, and candy.
These hyper-palatable industrial food products like candy, chips, and prepackaged snacks are designed to produce an addictive response.

They dysregulate appetite and drive excess adipose tissue development. This drives excessive adipose tissue gain starting in younger and younger children. Excess adipose tissue retards motor development and decreases motivation for move.

We often attribute the obesity epidemic to a sedentary lifestyle and that definitely contributes. However research points to diet as the primary culprit. Children then self-select to be less active as an effect of becoming overfat.

As a culture of parents, we are serving our kids incredibly poorly. We are giving into a culture of constant access to addictive foods products.

My wife and I are acutely aware of this while also being aware that being excluded from things other kids have access to is hard on kids and can cause a backlash.

We focus on making sure our kids sit down with us for breakfast and dinner every day. At those meals we serve healthy proteins, starches, fruits and veggies.
We also always have fresh or frozen fruit and veggies that can be easily accessed for snacks.
The kids get dark chocolate and homemade cocoa as snacks, and get to have ice cream once a week.

When they receive junk food at social events they can trade it in for healthier alternatives.
We are not trying to be perfect. We want them to have flexibility but we want them to be getting a solid base diet at all times and to understand which foods are the biggest problems.

#11) No More Than 1 Hour of Screen Time a Day

In general the kids have been allowed one night of tv shows and one night for a movie a week. We do go through periods where screen time creeps up, but always restrict it to no more than 2 hours a day.

We realize this is a struggle for most parents. Kids watching TV are generally kids not bothering you, and not fighting with each other or destroying the house. The lure of the screen is hard to resist but this is so critical for their health.

Research shows more than two hours a day of screen time is associated with decreased mental and physical health.

All the physical activity we do is one replacement option for screen time. Our two older kids are also extremely dedicated readers who will disappear for hours to read their favorite book series.

We have also been encouraging the kids recently to pick up board games. There are ways to avoid falling into the well of screen time and It’s worth the struggle in the long term.

#12) No video games at all

This has been a hard rule since day 1 for me. This is a very hard rule for many parents to contemplate.

Many parents of this generation grew up as gamers and playing video games is a major nostalgic element of their childhood. Many still play and for many video games are in fact central to their identity.

There is a reason though why I think video games are worse for children than TV. TV can be seen as like reading a book but more stimulating. However video games are like hyper stimulating versions of physical games. They directly compete with real life rough and tumble and locomotor play. Video games divorce the thrill of chasing, fighting, and hunting from any real physical effort!

I know how dysregulating video games can be personally. I mostly avoided video games growing up but I did fall in love with the Elder Scrolls series. When Skyrim, the last game in the series, came out, I ended up playing for over 200 hours.

I was Frequently staying up late into the night & my training, my work and my relationships all took a hit. I have never seen TV have the addictive capacity of video games for otherwise active and engaged people that I have seen with video games.

For me the potential for abuse and for outcompeting more nourishing activities is simply too high with video games.

#13) No Smart Phones Until They Are 16

This is because smartphones and social media are another form of hyper simulation.

Smart phones have an extremely high ability to outcompete healthier traditional social, physical and educational activities. They also have particularly been shown to be associated with increased depression and anxiety in young teens.

There is much more I could say but I think considering these 13 guidelines for your kids will go a long way to help raise more resilient, courageous and capable young people.

-Rafe Kelley

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