When Is It OK to Let Your Child Quit?
Plunking down the money for son Aidan Lightfoot to join the local youth wrestling club wasn't fun for Anne and Abe Bagniewski of Puyallup. Just two weeks later, Aidan discovered something else that wasn't fun: wrestling.
While his friends enjoyed learning the holds and techniques of competitive wrestling, 6-year-old Aidan wanted out.
"He just didn't think it was fun," Anne Bagniewski says. So they turned in his singlet and put his wrestling shoes away and let him quit. "I'd rather him be happy than miserable, because that makes me miserable, too," she says.
It's a dilemma every parent who has put a child into an organized sport, a club or lessons has or will face – the child who wants to quit. And in a society that teaches that "quitters never win," a child's simple desire to move on can cause an inordinate amount of soul-searching in the parents about values, character-building and commitment. Add to that the financial investment most activities require, and it's no wonder that "I want to quit" sends a chill through most moms and dads.
But before you give the "tough it out, you made a commitment" speech, it's wise to explore the reasons why a child wants to quit. "Anytime they ask the question, ‘Can I quit?' it really needs to be taken seriously," says Seattle child and family therapist Peter Weiss. "It's a good opportunity to slow down and model good decision making … Sometimes it's a reaction to a fleeting feeling or incident and sometimes it's deeper."
Find Out Why
Weiss tells the story of a 4-year-old ballet student he knows who stunned her mom by announcing that she was "all done" in the middle of a class. Her mom told her they would talk about it later and the girl skipped back into class and was excited to continue with the lessons, Weiss said. Particularly with very young children, who live very much in the moment, the desire to quit can be a passing whim.
At the same time, with young children, the emphasis should be on exposure to different activities, Weiss says. "It's OK to push them into all sorts of things," he continues. "But say you pushed them into piano lessons, and three months later they're resisting it. It might be a good time to chuck it and say, ‘Let me know if you want to take piano lessons again.' There needs to be a cycle of kids trying things out and then being able to move on and try something different."
With older children, particularly those who have spent several years becoming accomplished at a particular activity, it's important to dig deeper into the question of why they want to quit, Weiss says. Maybe they just need a break. Or maybe they really have outgrown it. That's a tough thing for a parent to accept. After all, when your child is constantly praised and acknowledged as being great at something, it's normal to enjoy basking in that glow, too. "We need to ask ourselves, how much are we vicariously wanting our kids to do the things we want to do," Weiss advises.
The first thing Weiss suggests that parents do is to try to forget about the money already spent on lessons, registration or equipment – as painful as that may be. If your child isn't benefiting from the program, you might as well cut your losses and pull out. The next step is to figure out why the child wants to quit. The reasons can range from bullying, to just not being at the same skill level as the other kids, to simple boredom. Sometimes, as Aidan Lightfoot discovered, the reality of an activity just isn't what was expected – and that's an OK reason to quit, Weiss says.
Bullying – not from teammates, but from the coach – prompted Abby Meyer's son Jordan to want to quit soccer when he was 7. It was his first year in the sport, and his teammates had been playing for three years already, so he wasn't at their skill level. "When I realized what the issue was, we talked about it with the coach," the Milton resident says.
The coach backed off when she realized she wasn't motivating so much as intimidating the young player. Jordan gained some confidence and learned some skills as he finished the season, without feeling that he just wasn't good enough to play. Still, he opted not to sign up again. If the coach hadn't cooled it, Meyer said, she would have reluctantly let her son quit mid-season.
Weiss says parents shouldn't worry that letting a child quit, even mid-season, is going to turn that child into a "quitter" for life, unless it becomes a pattern. Once a child has quit, the next time he wants to sign up for something, the parents should review the previous decision and talk about whether he's sure he wants to commit this time.
Group Needs, Individual Needs
And joining a team or a dance class offers a great opportunity to talk about "group needs and individual needs" with your child, Weiss says. That should be discussed before signing up. He also advises against using the team's needs as an excuse to stick it out unless it's true. A baseball team with a roster of 12 players will legitimately miss a teammate who quits mid-season, while a pee-wee football club of 40 players probably won't – and your child knows that.
Delsa Stockman of Des Moines coaches 6- to 18-year-old girls for Hart's Gymnastics in Auburn. She makes it clear before the start of the competitive season that they need to stick it out for those few months, even if they ultimately decide they want to leave, because of the impact it has on the team.
"When someone comes onto the team, I tell the parents that it needs to be the kids that want to do it and not the parents, because otherwise they'll burn out and waste everyone's time and money," Stockman says.
Stockman usually tries to talk girls out of quitting, based on her experience as a competitive gymnast. She quit her team just before starting high school. Practicing four days a week, "I felt like I was missing out on the social part of life," she says.
Within a year, she regretted the decision, something she warns girls who want to quit about, because competitive gymnastics is difficult to restart. She urges them to think about it for a month, but if they still want to quit, she's supportive. "If their heart's not in it, they're not going to do a good job anyway, and I don't want them to be miserable," she says. "Plus when their heart's not in it, their attitude is bad and brings everyone down."
Stockman's own sons have come to her with the desire to quit a sport they excelled at. She supported them both, though she understood their coach's disappointment. Dylan Dislers, 18, and Berkley Dislers, 16, were diving stars at Mt. Rainier High School in Des Moines – each making it to the State Championships their first years of competing. Dylan had been told he could probably get a college scholarship for diving, so his mom was stunned when he said he didn't want to dive in college because he didn't enjoy it anymore, and didn't want it to define his college experience. Her younger son quit after his freshman year because he wanted to devote more time to his music. "Once he started guitar and he figured out how much passion he had for that, he didn't want to waste time on something he wasn't passionate about."
Taking a Break Or Quitting for Good?
Seattle piano teacher Chris Marx says that if a student wants to quit, "they're not seeing where the fun is." Or perhaps the balance between work and fun is off kilter. "If they're doing six months of work for five minutes of fun, it is pretty grueling." His solution is to help them learn simple songs they can get in 15 or 20 minutes.
"A lot of pop songs aren't that tricky," he says. "After they have that success, they're willing to work a little harder."
Marx also says it's easy to see why a kid wants to quit piano lessons if the family's piano is kept in the basement or some other not-so-fun part of the house. He encourages parents of his students to sit down with them at the start of practice each day – most kids simply don't have the kind of self-discipline needed to practice without that support.
However, Marx says parents should go ahead and let their kids take a break, especially if they've been studying piano for several years.
"Breaks are OK," he says. "In fact, it's good to take breaks and come back reinvigorated. Go explore other things. Maybe take a break over the summer. Make it a seasonal thing." When kids have two hours of homework each night, plus piano practice and maybe soccer or karate, "they're stretched so thin they can't really be good at anything," Marx says. So perhaps they take a break from piano lessons during soccer season, or while the child explores another instrument or hobby.
Indeed, Marx stopped taking piano lessons when he was 12 years old, but came back to it in high school and went on to graduate from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, proving that quitting isn't always permanent.
Weiss says that it's natural that as kids get older, they become more focused on the activities that they really enjoy, while others fall away. Even so, parents have to make sure their children have a sense of balance in their lives, he says, comparing it to nutrition. Your kid doesn't have to keep eating spinach if she doesn't like it, but that doesn't mean she gets to eat only French fries. It's the same with leisure time, he says. Your kid doesn't have to continue taking violin lessons he hates, but that doesn't mean he gets to spend all his time playing video games. So when a child wants to quit, it's good to have a talk about what he wants to do instead and make sure there's some thought given to what will fill the time that will now be free. "All things in moderation," Weiss says.
For Aidan Lightfoot, quitting wrestling is a decision his mom doesn't regret. "I like sports and stuff too, but there's so much time for them to be so engaged in that." As Weiss advises, Bagniewski lets her son, now 9, take the lead in what he signs up for. He's not interested in competitive sports, but enjoys swimming lessons. "Sometimes you just know something isn't for you," she says.
This article first appeared in Seattle's Child magazine in November 2011.