Mommy, I want to be a black belt!"

Mommy, I want to be a black belt!"

Perhaps Little Susie's best friend just signed on for a two-year stint at a local martial arts school or maybe Little Johnny wants to don a colorful belt and fight the forces of evil like his favorite Ninja Turtle.

At the very least, karate offers an opportunity for kids to experience a structured program geared at, in most cases, physical and mental fitness, discipline, respect and character building.

While there are myriad benefits to enrolling young children in a martial arts program, the decision to enroll in a local program calls for some research into various styles of martial arts, school reputations and required investment of time and finances.

"In all honesty I have yet to see it bad for a child," says Jeff Rumelhart, managing director of the martial arts department of America's Best Kids' two locations in Medford.

"Every child, and I don't care what their challenges are, every child I've seen in the program has gotten something out of it. We teach moral and ethical values. It just so happens that martial arts are a tool we use to do that."

When considering a martial arts school, plan to check into as many local places as possible. Bypass any school without a friendly, open atmosphere and accommodating to potential students.

Try visiting potential schools and observing a class with your child at least twice before making any decisions and check into the school's philosophies, recommended training schedules, background check policies for adults working with children and adult to child ratios.

Acceptable ages for students will vary — as young as 5 in some cases while others may start students at age 8 or 9. Ask about the natural progression of training for your child, such as how often they'll meet for training and whether enough classes are offered for flexibility. Are there teen classes for children older than 12 or do students graduate to an adult class?

Consider the history of various martial arts and utilize subject specific books and Web sites, preferably not sponsored by schools interested in recruiting new students.

Martial arts come in many different styles, some perhaps more suited for certain personality types than others. Softer styles, such as Tai Chi, Wing Chun or Aikido, might meet Little Susie's needs while her older, more athletic sister might be drawn to harder styles like Shotokan or Tae Kwon Do or styles emphasizing grappling such as Jujitsu or Danzan Ryu.

Remember, not all schools offer the same thing, or similar versions of the same thing, so have some basic knowledge before heading out.

If a contract is required, read carefully and ask questions. What happens if your family moves away or, heaven forbid, Little Johnny "Ninja Turtles" himself off the jungle gym at school and winds up with a cast on his leg for several months, unable to attend class?

Most importantly, avoid hasty decisions. Remember, just last week, Little Susie announced plans to become an astronaut and start an animal rescue in her bedroom.

Discuss the commitments of time and finances involved with martial arts — for both the student and parent — and set realistic expectations. Do they want to join to have fun or be with friends? Or focus on a tournament style school and earn trophies?

As for the coveted black belt, some schools say attainment is possible in as few as three-and-a-half to four years while other schools won't present a black belt to anyone younger than 16.

"Our particular association that we belong to, you can't get a black belt unless you're a minimum of 16 years old. I am personally against black belts at age 8 and 9. That tells me that a school is interested in dollar value," says Larry Nolte, school head and sensei of Medford Judo Academy in Phoenix.

"An 8 or 9-year-old black belt doesn't relate real well with an adult or negotiate a situation the same way. A black belt can create a false security."

Nolte adds, "If you do your homework about what kind of school you're joining, it can be a good experience for your child. I would recommend anybody to go and sit down and talk to an instructor and see what the program includes. Martial arts builds self- confidence, self-esteem and character "¦ all of which are very good things for kids to have."