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Al Hamnik/Times Columnist

Many can't pour milk yet. Some aren't potty trained. A few still cry when mommy or daddy leaves the room.

They are all easy prey for pedophiles, kidnappers -- the twisted element of our society that lurks in shadows.

Help is on the way, though.

Dave Hestermann and professionals like him are teaching martial arts to children as young as 3 years old. They won't transform your kid into the next Jackie Chan or Steven Seagal. You won't have a little one who can kick butt in a bar fight, but you will rest easier when they're in the care of others.

"Let's face reality. At that size, you're not going to punch or kick your way out of anything," said the head instructor at Kempo Jujutsu Martial Arts Academy in Highland. "But they can 'escape,' so their awareness skills are more important than ever."

Children who listen to parents. M-m-m. That's a novelty today.

"If you make this class exciting enough for them, they will pay attention," said Hestermann, a grandfather. "We have different types of games where we play out different scenarios and get them psychologically prepared for what's going to happen to them.

"They'll fail when they're ill-prepared, and just freeze up when the situation occurs. It doesn't matter how many years they're in martial arts, unless they're doing stress-free activities, they're not going to be ready when the time comes."

Born in Hammond, schooled in Munster and then Rensselaer, and back living in Munster, Hestermann strikes an imposing figure at 6-foot, 240 pounds. But Kempo Jujutsu, now in its 11th year, is among a growing number of martial arts schools trained to teach children ages 3 to 11.

Read the Yellow Pages. Their ads are not designed to scare parents, but to offer life skills for surviving.

"The escaping factor and using their visual skills is more important than anything," Hestermann said. "Children need to be able to keep distance and understand that everyone's a stranger.

"They can't take for granted this person looks OK, and that person looks OK, and you can talk to anybody."

Instructors obviously aren't alone in their cautionary thinking. Hestermann estimates between "500 and 600" children enroll at his academy in a typical year. Occasionally, a parent or naive nanny may dump a child there, figuring it's day care with teddy bears and tumbling mats.

They figured wrong.

"I'm extremely strict in how I teach the classes and how I help kids learn to pay attention. The problem I may have is not kissing their butt," Hestermann said. "I'm not here to be a public service agent. I'm here to make sure your children are prepared when the time comes."

The time, God forbid, when some stranger in a car calls them over.

This column solely represents the opinion of the writer. Reach him at ahamnik@nwitimes.com

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