Should I let my kids quit activities?
Categories: General Parenting
There is a rule in the Charter of Unfair Parenting Truths that says: The more expensive a new activity your child wants to do, the less likely it is that they will stick with that activity. Don’t think you can get all clever and put off buying the equipment, accessories, uniforms or instruments, either.
Your child will only quit once you have bought All the Things and spent All the Money. From a scale of loom bands (relatively inexpensive) to horse riding (potential bankruptcy), the likelihood of quitting remains seems to increase proportionately. Which is not to say they won’t get over the loom bands or Pokémon cards, they definitely will. Then, after a few months of them gathering dust in a forgotten corner of their bedroom, you’ll throw them out or pass them on and then your child will develop a burning desire to engage with them again. That’s another rule in the Charter of Unfair Parenting Truths, by the way.
So, do you let them quit? Do you let them walk away and chuck all their gear in the corner, feeling like you might as well just throw your money into the ocean? Or do you insist they persist, despite their tantrums, claims of boredom, displays of abject terror, accusations of mean coaches or teachers and a sharp decline in their interest levels? Does the reason why they want to quit even matter? Many of us as parents are concerned about what it says to our kids if we allow them to quit activities after only a little while.
We worry that it teaches them that money grows on trees, that persistence doesn’t matter and that giving up when things are hard is fine. We worry that allowing them to hold those beliefs teaches them that they’re a precious snowflake and the world ought to bend to them, not the other way around. But is that what they actually learn when we let them quit? Let’s ask the experts!
Examine your own motivations
Okay, so when our kids first come to us and tell us they want to quit an activity, we can sometimes have a knee jerk reaction and tell them they can’t. If this happens, it’s important to examine our own thoughts and work out what’s behind them. Sometimes we’re just annoyed at the money we’ve shelled out towards their activity, but sometimes we don’t want them to quit for other reasons that require a bit of teasing out.
ParentTV expert Dr Tina Payne Bryson had some helpful suggestions on this when answering a question about whether someone should make their daughter practice the piano.
‘The first thing to consider about whether to try and get your child to persist with the activity is a values question. It’s about your goals and motivations, and what you’re trying to achieve. Do you want your child to gain mastery over something or just be exposed to it and gain the experience? If you want them to gain mastery, then yes, they’ll probably have to practice every day, but if you just wanted them to try it and they’re not enjoying it, it’s probably fine to let them quit.’DR TINA PAYNE BRYSON
In this same vein, it’s good to check in with yourself about whether you’re feeling disappointed for them or for you. Maybe their participation in the activity brought you something that you’ll miss, or said something about you as a parent that you liked. Maybe it was your childhood hobby and you took vicarious pleasure in them going through it.
But, we need to let our kids be free from these imperatives, says ParentTV expert Rachel Doherty. ‘It’s important to make sure that what your kids do is their thing and not yours. When they start a new hobby or activity, you might get involved and even become invested but it’s really important to separate that, because we don’t want our kids to do things just to make us happy. This is why it’s important to give them chances to opt out, to have places over the years where they can say they’ve had enough.’
Examine their motivations
If possible, it’s good to do a bit of gentle probing into your child’s reasons for quitting, and why they want to stop now. ‘Kids can be fickle creatures,’ says Rachel.
‘When they want to stop an activity they’ve only been doing for a little while, consider the timing. There can be a wrong time to quit, like when their friends are quitting and they just want to be part of the crowd. Or maybe they didn’t get into the team they wanted and they’re a bit disappointed. That might pass. Sometimes, kids might just decide they’re not very good at something, but that’s not necessarily a good reason to walk away.’ Especially when you’ve made an investment of your own time, money or other family resources, it can be a good compromise to ask your kids to see an activity out for a finite amount of time, like the rest of the season, Rachel says.
‘This way, they’re honouring their commitment, they feel like they finished something and they’re not letting their teammates down.’ So, before you respond to their request, get some context and ask – why now? This will help you decide whether to hold the line and ask them to persevere with their hobby or let it go.
Check if fear is getting in their way
How your child feels about their own abilities is likely to be a factor in their decision to quit an activity, especially if they’re inclined to perfectionism. Fear of failure or a low threshold for tolerating their own incompetence, or not-yet-competence can be real barriers for these kids.
ParentTV expert Dr Jodie Lowinger has some advice for parents of perfectionist kids, saying that, ‘When our kids and teens are striving for perfection, they are constantly setting themselves unrealistic benchmarks that they’re never going to be able to achieve and feel good about. This has huge impacts on their self-esteem and self-worth.’
For parents, this might mean weighing up whether to let your child stop an activity to try and preserve their self-esteem, or let them continue so they have a chance to challenge their own ‘rules’ and improve their self-esteem. This decision might come down to things like their age, the importance of the pursuit and their emotional stability at the time.
Help them embrace mistake-making
‘Part of being a person is getting things wrong,’ says ParentTV expert Teacher Tom. ‘Kids need to know that everyone makes mistakes all the time and that trying to be perfect is a hard thing to do. I encourage kids to make mistakes deliberately.’ This helps them flex their imperfection and practicing muscles and learn to find delight in doing something even when they aren’t very good at it.
When you feel like they can handle it, a gentle nudge in the right direction might give your perfectionist child the opportunity they need to learn that failure actually is tolerable and mistakes aren’t the end of the world, says Dr Lowinger. ‘If you encourage your children to lean into this space of imperfection and purposeful mistake-making, they can test the waters and learn that they coped much better than they expected or the outcome wasn’t as bad as they expected.
Worry tricks us into believing that making a mistake will be a catastrophe, so we constantly check and recheck ourselves to make sure this doesn’t happen.’ To help rein in their performance anxiety, keep an eye on what their objectives are, says Dr Lowinger. ‘As parents of perfectionist kids, you can try to notice when they’re really focussed on outcomes and you can try and tip the focus back to effort. Effort is within our control, outcome is not.’
Talk about what else the experience is teaching them
Sometimes, the specific skills involved in executing an activity are actually the least important thing about it. Your child might need a little help to consider what else they’re gaining besides the skill, particularly if they tend to be a bit literal about these sorts of things. Maybe they’re learning communication and collaboration skills as part of a team. Maybe they’re learning discipline and self-motivation in an individual pursuit.
Maybe they’re learning to commit and show up, even when it’s hard. If they stop the activity, they’ll be losing this opportunity to build those additional skills too, so talk with them about how important they are. Ask whether they have other ways to continue building them outside of the activity they want to quit. Sometimes as parents we get fixated on our kids learning these ‘lessons’ through particular activities, but the reality is, there will probably be many occasions in their lives for them to learn them, and we don’t necessarily get to choose what they get out of things or not!
Ultimately, we want to empower kids to make their own choices in life, says Rachel Doherty. ‘The decision to quit a sport or activity is rarely going to be so permanent that they can’t pick it up again in a few months or even a few years. The break may lead to a new activity that nobody saw coming. At the end of the day, activities should be a part of kids’ lives but not their whole lives. We want to help our kids to master their own lives by helping them choose those things that they enjoy, give them a sense of belonging and make them feel like they’ve achieved something.’
Understand that their activities are helping shape their identity
The tween age group is a prime time for quitting activities, says Rachel Doherty, and we need to understand this as a part of their identity formation. ‘Tweens are at that stage in their life when they’re working out who they are and where they fit. Working out what they’re good at and what they enjoy is a part of this, and they can’t really work that out until they’ve tried a few different things.
Towards the end of primary school, you might find that they want to give everything else up and try something new altogether, and that can be a good thing.’ Some parents feel like letting their kids quit something is a reflection on them and their parenting, and this can be quite a dangerous place to go, says Rachel. ‘It actually takes a lot of courage for kids to walk away from something they’ve been doing, particularly if they’ve been doing it for a while and they’re really good at it. We need to applaud our kids for choosing something different, so if they’re quitting to sit on the couch and play Xbox that’s one thing, but if they’re quitting to try something new then we need to get behind them and encourage them to be the person they want to be.’
Having said that, it’s important for kids to know that activities are not everything, Rachel says.
‘Whatever your kids do, don’t let it define them. Don’t let them be Billy the dancer or Kate the soccer player. Let them be Billy who does dancing and Kate who plays soccer. This will give them a sense that who they are and who they can become is much larger than the things they do.’
When you really want them to persist
You might have read all this, thought it through and come to the conclusion that you really don’t want your child to quit their activity, for whatever reason. So, how do you help them persist when their enthusiasm is lagging? Dr Tina Payne Bryson gave this advice to the parent of the reluctant piano player we mentioned earlier, which can be applied to any activity:
‘It’s important for parents to know that the brain is an association machine,’ says Dr Payne Bryson. ‘If our kids have negative, drama-filled associations with something like playing the piano because we’ve had battles over them practicing, that will make it very unlikely that they’ll want to continue to play. So, if we’re aiming for our kids to really try and achieve that mastery, there’s a few things we need to do.’
- Make it fun
‘Do something like a funny interpretive dance at the end of a particular exercise or put a whoopee cushion down on their seat. This will create positive associations in their brain with the activity.’
- Be empathetic
‘Your child will be much more willing to practice if you’re empathetic with them. Say something like, ‘I know you don’t feel like practicing and you’d much rather be doing something else but I love that you’re doing it anyway!’’
- Be creative
Be creative with how you offset their efforts. ‘Try something like giving them their time back and letting them stay up ten minutes later that night when they practice for ten minutes in the day.’
Finally, help them see their gifts, whatever they are
To help your kids believe in their own worth regardless of how good they are at whatever activities they undertake, consider Multiple Intelligence Theory, says ParentTV expert Susan Stiffelman. ‘Multiple Intelligence Theory helps us understand that there are many flavours of intelligence. If your child is having a hard time with a subject at school or an activity, I urge you as parents to not say things like, ‘Why can’t you try harder?’ because that isn’t fair.
Understand that not every child takes in information in the same way, and every child has different capabilities. We need the artists and the architects and the musicians and the people whose gifts are interpersonal and introspective, and those who are tuned into animals and nature and the mysteries of the world around them. We can each show up in the world with our own talents and skills and interests and gifts to share, and we as parents can help our kids celebrate these, whether they’re in the classroom or in outside activities. Every child needs to grow up knowing that the particular gifts and talents that they came preloaded with are valuable and vital to the world.’