1. Check out the school alone before you bring your child in for a look. Just like any facility your child will be spending time in, make sure it is clean, safe and generally comfortable. Walk through the changing area/dressing rooms and actually use the bathrooms. Look around/listen to how instructors are speaking to the students and each other. Are the classes chaotic and unorganized or structured and informational? Are students encouraged to ask questions and participate by helping demonstrate techniques or expected to just do without explanation? Would you feel comfortable leaving your child there without you? If something feels off about the environment or the instruction, trust your gut. If you're fine with what you experience, stop in next time with your child.
2. Not every 10-year old is/Not every five year old isn't ready for a structured, physically challenging activity. Since you know your child better than her/his instructor does, you're probably the best judge of whether or not Junior is capable of following instructions in a group setting, sitting still/waiting his turn effectively and functioning without your hand-holding for a 30- to 45-minute class. If you aren't sure about your grade-schooler or if the instructor needs convincing about your pre-schooler, ask if your child can take a trial class to see if s/he can make it through comfortably. Many schools offer a week of or at least a few classes for free to help you figure out if the class works for your child and your family's lifestyle. Don't buy any equipment or sign any long-term agreements until you're sure the school/program is a good fit.
3. Learning any martial art is designed to take a long time. Really, the martial path is all about the journey, not the destination - and a fast trip is often not the generally recommended road. Any school or program promising to make your child into a black belt in X number of years is one you should probably run from as quickly as humanly possible. Also, let your child know that the martial path is all about delayed gratification and the Puritan Work Ethic. The hard work put in will certainly pay off, but that payoff isn't always immediately apparent - which is why is is so important that your child enjoy the time they spend in class. Children can get frustrated or "Are we there yet?" bored easily if they don't know what to expect.
4. Make sure your child is dressed appropriately for class. Whether or not instruction happens in a traditional setting with uniforms and belts/sashes or in a church basement with t-shirts and sweatpants, your child should have what s/he needs to actively participate. Watches, rings, metal headbands, jeans, pencil skirts, big belt buckles and the like can restrict movement or make for safety hazards on the mat. Also, don't rely on the instructor to keep tabs on necklaces and bracelets during the class. The best rule of thumb is to not wear any accessory not used on the mat to the training hall in the first place.
5. Be mindful of after-school programs that offer a martial arts component where everyone must participate. Again, if your child isn't really feeling martial arts, any session where they must participate will not be pleasant for them at all, which will make for a bad experience for them, their dojo/dojang mates and their instructor. You know that feeling you get before heading into a mandatory work-related meeting that you really don't want to go to in the first place? They'll feel the same way every time Karate Day approaches if they don't want to be there. If your child has tried the class a few times and it really isn't his/her thing, talk to the program director about finding an alternate activity.
6. This is your child's activity, not yours. Just because you always wanted to study martial arts doesn't mean your child does. Sure, the discipline and character-building that martial arts instruction provides is great, but it doesn't necessarily mean your child will be as anxious to learn to do new stuff like punch/kick things and scream like a banshee as you might have been. If Suzy shows a genuine interest in joining a class, great! But if she tells you that she's not sure once she gets there AND really seems out of sorts during class AND keeps expressing to you that she doesn't want to go back AND you are more enthusiastic about going than she is, it might be time for you to sign up for class and find another activity for her.
7. Remember: It's supposed to be fun. Martial arts instruction has some built-in stressors - like the pressure of learning forms, understanding bunkai, promotions and remembering dojo etiquette - but it still should be enjoyable to the folks participating, whether they are 5 or 55. Generally speaking, participating in class and other martial arts-related activities (tournaments, seminars and/or visiting other schools) should be something your child looks forward to. When it isn't a happy experience anymore - and not just because the expectations are higher or the curriculum challenges are getting tougher - it may be time to think about exploring new activities.
Not an exhaustive list by any means, but this is enough to get you started on deciding if martial arts is right for your child. If you have any questions or are a martial artist or parent who has tips for those trying to decide if martial arts instruction is right for their child, feel free to add them in the comment section below.