Everything You Need to Know About Martial Arts Before Signing Your Kid Up

From which styles teach practical fighting to how to find the right dojo, we asked 'karate parents' for their best tips to getting kids into martial arts.

by Dave Baldwin

Kids take karate for any number of reasons, not least of which is because they moved to California with their mom and befriended a wise elderly gardener after getting pummeled by a group of surfers who all attend the same local dojo. Some kids take it to learn self-defense so they can fight bullies. Others because they lack discipline or need more structure in their lives. Still, others because they suck at baseball.

But no matter the reason a kid ends up taking karate lessons, one thing is certain: Signing up for martial arts classes can be absurdly confusing. Not only is there an endless number of schools from which to choose (Aikido, Jiu-jitsu, Krav Maga, the list goes on), each of which emphasizes different skills and priorities, but every dojo and sensei has its own style. Plus, the pricing packages are questionable, if not dubious, and are often presented using a strong-arm sales pitch. Needless to say, shopping for a karate school can be overwhelming to parents who have no experience with the martial arts.

Which is why we reached out to parents who do. We surveyed a handful of ‘karate parents’ — either who currently have kids enrolled in martial arts classes or who are longtime practitioners themselves and are now introducing their own children — and asked what they think parents considering martial arts should know? Or what they wish they had known about kids karate before signing up? Here’s what they said.

What Do You Want Your Kid to Get Out of Martial Arts?

Is the goal to teach them self-defense? Help them build self-esteem? Get fit or instill a sense of discipline? There are plenty of benefits to kids practicing martial arts, but figuring out which ones you want to emphasize is important. “Before you start looking for schools, I would ask yourself, ‘What do you hope your child gets out of the whole thing?'” says Jared Bilski, a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. “At four years old, no martial art is really able to teach true self-defense. But if you think they’ll stick with it, you’ll want to give more thought to the decision.”

“People who don’t know about martial arts tend to think it’s basically all the same,” adds Dimitri Ehrlich, who is a black belt in Kung Fu and a brown belt in Aikido, and whose 3-year-old is just getting started in martial arts. “When it comes to kids, a lot of parents think in terms of it instilling discipline. But when you dive a little deeper into what the different styles emphasize, you can make a more informed decision.”

For example, he says, “I wouldn’t start a 4-year-old with Tai Chi because it takes a lot of patience. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is very tactical and requires a lot of learning and memorization, and while it’s good to start young, that might turn some kids off. Similarly, some traditional styles like Kung Fu require sitting in various stances for a long time, and that can be hard for kids.” He says the safest styles are more grappling or wrestling based, like Judo or Aikido, and notes that while the Afro-Brazilian martial art, Capoeira, offers a lot of great benefits like flexibility, it’s more of a cooperative dance and it has a very different spirit than Asian martial arts.

Avoid Traditional Karate or Tae Kwon Do If You Want Them to Kick Ass

“Do you really want your kid to learn to fight?” Ehrlich says should be your first question. “And is the style you’re looking at practical ⏤ will your kid learn to defend themselves in the schoolyard?” If so, he recommends against taking traditional karate, Kung Fu, or Tae Kwon Do. “Tae Kwon Do is not very practical as a fighting style on the street,” he says. “There’s so much theory in the way that classes are taught, they’re so divorced from reality with the forms, and the philosophy is too far removed from the practical fighting experience.”

Instead, he recommends Brazilian jiu-jitsu or even Muay Thai (in addition to Western boxing or wrestling) if you really want your child to learn to fight and defend themselves. “Ninety percent of your time in these styles is spent actually sparring and that develops a different kind of confidence in a kid.”

Brandon Musick agrees: “Don’t take Karate. The things they teach in regards to stranger danger and self-defense are completely worthless. I would recommend wrestling or Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Both teach great body awareness and kids learn to take an impact while being safe.”

The School And Sensei Matter More Than the Style of Martial Art

“I don’t think any one style over the other matters too much when it comes to martial arts for a 4-year-old,” says Bilski. “I’m biased toward Tae Kwon Do since I spent so much time with it, but I’ve done a little bit of stuff with Judo and Jiu-Jitsu as well, and it really comes down to the school and the instructor. That said, if possible, I’d recommend finding a place that has some true roots in ancient art. The flashy, American hybrid schools tend to ignore the tradition of the whole thing, and I think that’s a mistake.”

Joshua David Stein, who earned a black belt in aikido and currently practices Brazilian jiu-jitsu at Sun Dojo in Brooklyn, agrees: “It’s worth traveling a bit farther to find a dojo with a legit sensei,” says “Don’t be afraid ⏤ and don’t not ⏤ look into the background of the sensei. Who gave him or her their black belt? Who is actually teaching the class?”

Adds Brett Ortler, who studied Judo and Jujitsu, “The word sensei means ‘elder’ but is often translated as ‘teacher,’ and it’s apt here: You are essentially choosing a teacher for your kid.”

Choose Your Dojo Carefully

Similarly, the most important piece of advice every parent stressed was to choose your dojo wisely. “The dojo has to be right for you and your kid, and finding a good one can be tough,” says Ortler. They all recommended visiting several schools and taking advantage of free trials to observe classes (“just the feeling you get from a place is enough to go on,” adds Bilski), as well as asking about injury rates, class sizes, and how belts are awarded. Even more important, suggests Marcus Rodriguez, whose 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter practice Aikido in Atlanta, is observing how the established students responded to the instructor and how the instructor managed the students.

“Go to the school, watch the class, look at the senior students,” adds Ehrlich, “See if they look good or if they look sloppy, because that’s an indication of how good the teacher is.” He also suggests looking for red flags like students sparring too hard or getting hurt and a violent atmosphere that’s not conducive to learning. You don’t necessarily need a lot of drill sergeant barking or a place where they’re “creating a soldier mentality. You don’t need people to beat the shit out of you to learn.” He warns against a “super macho, no pain no gain attitude” and is wary of schools that appear to run more like fight clubs.

Even if you have a convenient local dojo, the goal is to find a place where you and your kid feel comfortable. You want a place they’re excited to go to and want to come back every week, where they can build a true love for the art. Otherwise, they’ll eventually quit.

Don’t Expect Your Kid to Be Bruce Lee After the First Day, Month, or Even Year

One of the biggest misconceptions about martial arts is that kids will get good at fighting very quickly. Parents often have unrealistic expectations of what martial arts are, says Ehrlich, “It’s not going to make your kid an ass-kicking ninja machine.” At least not right away, that takes many years of practice. “People don’t realize that it’s not magic. It’s hard work.”

“Bruce Lee didn’t become a badass in a day, and your kid definitely won’t either,” adds Rodriguez. “It’s a long process and it really doesn’t seem like much is happening for a while. But fast forward six months or a year and it may start to resemble something you’ve actually seen before.”

Also, Don’t Expect Your Undisciplined Child to All of Sudden Be a Well-Behaved Kid

“A lot of parents think that by sending their kid to karate or Tae Kwon Do, they’re going to get discipline, and it’s going to help them with homework,” says Ehrlich. “It’s advertised that way ⏤ promoting self-control and discipline ⏤ because that’s what parents want.” In general, though, you’re not going to completely change your kid’s character or personality with a few months of an after-school activity. That doesn’t mean it won’t eventually help your kid focus and become a better student, just don’t expect immediate results.

Starting Early Helps Eliminate a Fear of Being Hit

Naturally, this depends on the style of martial arts you choose, but the sooner you get your child sparring, the less afraid they’ll be of getting hit or thrown.

Be Wary of Annual Contracts and Extra Costs

Martial arts schools operate a lot like gyms in that they often push long-term or annual contracts, knowing full well that people quit or don’t come infrequently. Be careful about putting down too much money up front, especially if you’re unsure your child will either enjoy or stick with it.

“Be prepared for extra costs too: belts, testing, and tournaments,” says James Goodman, whose son studied Tae Kwon Do for over three years. “It’s easy to fall into a ‘contract’ by accident if you aren’t careful. Read everything. Always ask how to cancel and what is required.” That all said, he notes: “Martial arts ain’t cheap, but it can be worth it in the long run. It created an environment for my son to understand discipline, not only in school but at home. And he also learned to reach certain achievements for rewards.”

“The number one rip-off when it comes to martial arts as a business is the concept of testing,” adds Ehrlich. “Where you get tested every few months and there’s a charge.” Sure, sometimes kids need a marker like a belt, he says, but it’s not critical to their learning the skills. At the very least, ask the school how much extra per year you’ll be expected to pay.

Expect To Practice With Them at Home

Martial arts are no different than baseball, basketball, or soccer when it comes to getting better ⏤ if your kid is going to improve they have to practice. Be prepared to spend time working with your kids on stances, techniques, and sparring during the week. “Practicing at home with them daily is important,” says Musick, “Because once or twice a week in class isn’t enough time to learn.”

Even If They Love It, Your Kids Will Complain

No matter what style of martial arts you choose, it’s still hard work. And kids are kids. Don’t be surprised if they whine, complain, or just flat out have a sour attitude sometimes, says Rodriguez. “They aren’t always like that but there are days where they don’t want to go, or they don’t want to do the work ⏤ and it is work ⏤ or they’re just not paying attention.” Assuming they truly enjoy practicing, and it’s not something you’re forcing on them, it will pass.

Your Kids Will Learn Important Life Skills

“I started when I was in first grade, and the number one thing I got out of martial arts was discipline,” says Bilski, “I was a wild, annoying, hyper kid and the discipline, the structure, and the respect aspect of the teaching did wonders for me. It also gave me a ton of self-confidence.”

Alexandra Fung, whose 11- and 9- year-olds have been taking karate for over a year, agrees: “What I appreciate most about my kids’ involvement in martial arts is that it not only provides excellent fitness training but also encourages and promotes important life skills, including confidence, discipline, and respect. This focus on skills beyond those necessary for mastering the martial arts forms themselves bears fruit outside of the studio, and has a positive impact in the way my kids communicate with others, their approach to school work, and a heightened sense of responsibility within our family and in our home. And, because they have fun while they are learning their kicks, punches, and forms, these lessons are all the more effective and likely to stick.”

Just Knowing They’re Learning Self-Defense Puts Your Mind at Ease

“They may not be great, but just knowing they’re learning how to defend themselves makes you feel better,” says Rodriguez. “I wasn’t the biggest kid in class, and I certainly didn’t know how to defend myself. I wanted something better for my kids. I know it’s somewhat selfish, but ever since my kids were born, I’ve worried about their safety.”