Several months ago, my older son (now eight) told me he wanted to start taking Tae Kwon Do lessons. It was easy to blame the Power Rangers TV shows he had been watching and think it was likely just a passing interest. Still, he knew that I had trained in Tae Kwon Do and from time to time, he would ask me to teach him some of the moves I remembered. He showed promise - his attention to detail, ensuring he performed the moves I taught him correctly convinced me he might really be serious about this.
So, I relented. I took him to a local school that I had been familiar with for several years now, and the instructor seemed to be well-known and liked. After six months my son's interest remained strong. Better yet, his instructor considered him one of the best students in the class. Naturally, I thought about enrolling my younger son as well, but as I considered his personality, I realized martial arts may not be for everyone.
Exposing children (and their parents!) to the experience of martial arts training requires care and thought. If your child is interested in martial arts or you're thinking of enrolling them in a class, there are a few things to consider.
Martial arts training requires discipline.
However, a martial arts instructor cannot teach discipline to a child who doesn't possess skills to learn it. Your child should be able to stand or sit quietly for several minutes and listen to someone else, or do as they’re told even if left briefly unsupervised. Understand, these skills are acquired with maturity, not age. I know of four-year-olds who are as well-equipped mentally for martial arts training as most seven or eight-year-olds. So, if your child does not adequately possess these skills, consider enrolling them on the condition that they work on them. Otherwise, skip the lessons for now. Children who are not yet mature enough to learn discipline will only distract other students and consume a larger amount of the instructor's time.
Your child's physical development should generally not be a limiting factor when you consider martial arts classes. If a child is genuinely interested, they will use their physical abilities as well as they are able and their skills will improve - perhaps far quicker than you might expect. After six months of Tae Kwon Do lessons twice weekly (about an hour per lesson), my older son demonstrated a significant increase in his physical agility and coordination. He's one of the smaller children in his age group and doesn't possess a lot of natural strength, but he's very "technical". He can perform the moves accurately and completely every time - something that can be difficult for any student (regardless of age) to master.
The other students in your child's class are a critical part of the training experience. How they interact with each other is important. If the other children seem too intense, you may want to look elsewhere. Let your child make the decision, though. The class may seem intimidating to you, but if your child is comfortable with it, don't interfere. Conversely, if your child seems to be more aggressive than the other students, you may want to look for a different class. They may need a more focused group to learn well.
The instructors are responsible for everything that goes on in class. It's important that they are able to manage the behaviors and issues that arise responsibly and fairly. I would suggest watching for a few specific qualities when gauging whether or not an instructor may be a good fit for training your child.
Tone of Voice - Don't mistake a strong or authoritative tone for yelling, but do take note of sudden shouts or outbursts toward misbehaving children.
Supervision - In a larger class, students may often be divided into groups. At times, groups may be expected to function without supervision, if only for a few minutes. An unsupervised group of younger children can work well, but not always. It's not uncommon that they lose focus or interest in what they're doing and engage in other activities (or no activity at all) . If the instructors fail to notice this or don't deal with it, it may be a clue that they're overtaxed. Some instructors, however, use this as a way to avoid dealing with a younger child's inability to keep up and it may be a clue that they are not well-suited to working with kids.
Friendliness - Talk to the instructors after class. Are they approachable? Do they want to talk to you? How they respond to you will likely determine your willingness to let your child participate in class. If you're concerned about younger children participating in their class, ask them! What they say will certainly help make the decision to enroll your child easier.
If you're new to the martial arts scene, other parents (who are likely to be sitting next to you during lessons) are a great resource to help you get a quick feel for the class. Start a conversation with them. Ask what they or their children think of the class, how long they've participated, etc. It's likely they've had the same concerns as you and can help give perspective on issues or concerns that are important to you.
If your child expresses an interest in learning the martial arts, you must ultimately decide whether or not they possess the maturity to handle the demands and disciplinary requirements of the training. Only you, as a parent, can make that decision. The rewards, however, of picking the right school will benefit your child for the rest of their lives.