By Delia Lloyd
Like many parents these days, I’m guilty of raising two classically over-scheduled children. We race from piano lessons to craft club and from soccer matches to chess tournaments. And there’ve been more Sundays than I’d care to admit when I’ve been relieved to discover that the swimming pool has flooded so we can’t make it to swim class.
But I always insisted—to myself, if not to others—that my kids’ busy lives were a reflection of them, not me. They were curious. They were energetic. And if they had lots of interests, my job as a parent—within reason and budget allowing—was to enable them to experiment with those interests and see which, if any, developed into a true passion.
Until the day my 11-year-old son, Isaac, came home and told me that he didn’t want to play the violin anymore. And suddenly, I had to dust off my parenting playbook and revisit my assumptions about how much of what my children do is about what they want vs. what I think is good for them.
I concluded—along with my husband—that there were certain things I just wasn’t going to allow them to quit.
I’m not necessarily proud of this decision. I’ll never forget the time when the two of us were on vacation in our early 30s (pre-kids), lounging by the swimming pool, when we overheard a father get into the water with his daughter to work on her front crawl.
“That was two good strokes and one bad stroke,” he shouted. “Do it again!” My husband and I looked at each other and shook our heads. “What a nightmare!” we whispered to one another. “We’d never do that to our kids,” seemed to be our tacit bargain. What a difference eleven years makes.
As soon as my son announced that he was “tired” of violin and wanted to stop playing, I realized that there was no way I was going to let him quit.
Part of it was how I felt every time I heard an adult friend lament about the day she gave up playing the piano … the violin … the flute … the clarinet. “If only my parents hadn’t let me quit!” was the common complaint. Isn’t hating your musical instrument part of growing up?
I was also worried that as my son grew older and showed more of an interest in— and aptitude for—soccer, his well-rounded, inquisitive nature might be sacrificed in the name of sports. Precisely because sports are cool and violin—well not so much. I feared that he might emerge from adolescence a one-dimensional adult.
It was also around this time I read Michelle Obama’s list of parenting rules for her daughters. These include having them play two sports each, one they picked and one she chose for them, precisely because she wanted them to learn how to work harder at things they found difficult.
I imagine that some people who read the First Lady’s list might have questioned that rule. But I found myself agreeing with Mrs. Obama. There’s a real value in old-fashioned perseverance. And with all the talk of “life skills” these days, I don’t think it’s a bad idea for children to start learning the value of commitment early on, even when they find something onerous.
I’m not saying that I make my kids follow through on every single thing they’ve started. French lessons for my daughter came and went. My son was excited by drama for awhile. And then he wasn’t. But he’s been playing violin for six years now and he’s actually pretty good. To give up now would be to turn his back on a huge investment of time, money, and effort over the years, all for something I’m fairly certain he’ll regret, if not now, then later on.
I guess I’ve come around to the view that there’s a certain “eat your spinach” quality to parenting. (For the record, I also make my kids eat their vegetables.) As parents, we aren’t always right, but we are there to help our children see the value in things that they might not be old enough—or mature enough—to appreciate in the moment.
I hope I’m never as overbearing as that man in the swimming pool all those years ago. But I also hope that one day my kids will thank me for not letting them give up too easily.
Delia Lloyd is an American journalist/blogger based in London. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post’s She The People blog, and blogs about adulthood at Realdelia.
By Kristen Levithan
This fall I did something I never thought I’d do before becoming a parent: I let my child quit.
I’d signed my son up for preschool soccer after he had enjoyed his inaugural season last spring. Danny had liked being on the team, sporting his canary yellow jersey, and giving piggy back rides to his teammates, even though he generally showed more interest in trying to climb up the net than in putting the ball into it. When the time came for fall registration, I asked him if he wanted to play again and he enthusiastically said yes.
From the first practice, though, I could tell that things weren’t going to go well. Danny was uncharacteristically aggressive with the other kids, dribbling the ball into them and tussling with them when the coach turned away. When the games started, he began each one excitedly, cheering for his teammates and hustling to keep up with the action. But then something would set him off—an accidental trip, a misunderstood direction from his coach, or a goal for the other team—and he would collapse into tears, march to the sideline, and sit out for the rest of the game, inconsolable.
The same scenario played out the next week. And the week after that.
At first, I refused to entertain the idea of allowing him to quit. Like many of us, I was raised to finish what I started. I didn’t quit soccer, even though it held no appeal to me. I finished games of Monopoly, no matter how interminable. I blanched at the idea of sending the wrong message to my son, of turning him forever into a shiftless fly-by-night.
But then I realized that my reluctance to let Danny quit had a lot more to do with me than it did with him. I was embarrassed by the thought of explaining my decision to the coach and then pacing the sidelines for the rest of the season—my other son was on the same team—wondering what the other moms were thinking of me. I was so busy doing what I thought a good parent should do and worrying about other people’s opinions that I forgot to think about what was best for my son.
When I finally stopped to talk to him, I began to understand why soccer was rubbing up against every vulnerable place inside of him. We danced around issues of perfectionism, frustration, and anger and, though I still don’t know exactly why Danny went from a kid who liked soccer to one who hated it, I knew that quitting was what we were going to do.
Ultimately, I believe that letting Danny quit taught him to listen to his gut and to speak up for himself. It signaled to him that, even at five-and-a-half, what he thinks and how he feels matter more to us than blind adherence to a theoretical principle. And I hold these lessons in as high regard as I do the ones on perseverance and commitment that I worried he was missing.
Allowing Danny to bow out of soccer mid-season also underscored my belief that childhood should be about exploration and experimentation, about letting kids test their wings while we’re still around to catch them if they fall. Giving our kids the option to quit celebrates the idea that they should have the chance to try out new things without the expectation that every new thing will fit.
In the end, letting our kids abandon activities that don’t work gives them the chance to try other things that might. For Danny, that thing turned out to be swimming. He’d loved his swimming lessons over the summer and asked to try them again this winter. With the soccer debacle fresh in my mind, I was reluctant to enroll him in another organized activity: would this just be another $50 down the drain?
But on the first day of lessons, I knew that swimming was a better match for my boy, for now. He waved to me as I headed for the door to the waiting area and then paddled over to join his classmates, a purple pool noodle tucked under his arms. At the teacher’s request, Danny dipped his head under the water and came up for air, a wide smile on his face and droplets of water clinging to his eyelashes. His laughter let me know that he—and we—were in the right place.
Kristen Levithan is a freelance writer and mother of three. She can be found online at mothereseblog.com
Brain, Child (Spring 2013)
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