Should You Let Your Child Quit?

NO

By Delia Lloyd

Debate_A_v2 for webLike 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.

 

YES

By Kristen Levithan

Debate_B_v2 for webThis 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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  • http://project-based-homeschooling.com/camp-creek-blog/ Lori

    “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.”

    there are a few misconceptions here:

    – you have to do something you don’t want to do to learn how to work hard.

    – you have to do something you don’t want to do to do difficult things.

    – you have to do something you don’t want to do to learn how to persevere.

    all of these are false.

    it’s when you work on something you really care about — something that genuinely interests you, a goal that you really want to achieve — that you work your hardest. you learn what you are capable of. and children doing this work are most likely to work at their challenge point — the front edge of their abilities.

    that challenge point is where you learn to do difficult things — and you find it working on something you really want to do. more importantly, once you meet those difficulties, you attack them with your self-motivation, big ideas, and desire to succeed.

    a lot of people think that if you want to do something and you enjoy it, that must mean it’s easy for you. this is so wrongheaded, it’s painful. it leads to perfectionism — “if i don’t excel at it immediately, i shouldn’t do it.” it leads to a fixed mindset regarding learning — “i mustn’t let anyone see me struggle or they’ll think i’m not smart.” worst of all, it leads to parents de-prioritizing their children’s interests and abilities. rather than investing in what their child *wants* and *likes* to do, they focus on their child’s perceived deficits. because after all, it’s doing the unpleasant things that don’t interest you that teaches you all the important lessons.

    actually, investing in interests and abilities allows your child to develop her signature strengths. by digging deeply into what she genuinely likes and wants to do, she will find the hard work and the difficult challenges — and she’ll be well equipped to meet them because her motivation comes from within.

    the idea that a child will only choose things for herself that aren’t difficult makes me feel sad — for the child and the parent. wanting to do something doesn’t make it easy — and making children believe that leads to them quitting things that feel hard. instead, we need to help them do the things they want to do and support them so their learning, making, and doing can be challenging, rigorous, and meaningful *to them*.

    as to quitting, forcing a child to continue on with something he doesn’t enjoy teaches him a very important lesson: that if he expresses interest in exploring something new, you will force him to continue even if he decides it’s not for him. that seems an excellent way of raising a child who will avoid trying new things and exploring new areas, if that’s your goal.

    • http://www.thecultivatemother.blogspot.com Kimberly

      Spot on, Lori!

  • http://www.thelatchkeymom.com Allie Smith

    I am going through this right now with my seventh grader, who wants to quit band. Admittedly, he not a great trumpet player, but he doesn’t put much effort into either. He’s had a history of giving up on things too quickly, imo, and I’ve unfortunately allowed it to happened. There are four kids, and our schedule is packed. When I get the chance for some wiggle room, I don’t put up much of a fight. He’s getting to the age where I feel he needs to pick a direction. The bouncing around from extracurricular to extra curricular isn’t good for him or the family. The only thing that seem to really hold his interest are video games, grrr. But this time I’m holding my ground because with one more year of school band, and he earns his HS fine arts credit!

  • Diane Slone

    In my household as a child, there were a couple of things – both my sister and I played the violin, and it was understood that we’d do that (at least) until we graduated from high school. In addition, we both participated in various other activities. The expectation was that we would see through whatever commitments we made…that meant through the “season” of that activity, regardless of any disinterest that might have developed. At the time, it was really irritating. Now, as a parent myself – in addition to being a teacher – I see that it not only taught use perserverance, but also taught us responsibility to others, and the importance of each member of a “team” whether it was basketball or orchestra. Today, with my 9 year old, I follow that same path…if she chooses to join at the beginning of a season, she will finish the season; but if she doesn’t want to play the following season, I don’t force it. With sports, I DO talk to her about frustrations she might experience at a later time if she chooses to take a season off and her friends don’t…the skills she will lose, and the skills they will gain as a result. If it’s an individualized experience (diving, flute, choir, etc), I tell her that she will need to talk with the teacher/coach and tell them that she won’t be participating the next season…sometimes, the need for that direct communication allows kids to decide if they really don’t want to continue with the activity, or if they’re just trying to find (another) way to pull their parent(s)’ strings!

  • http://www.nurturedbylove.ca/blog Miranda Hughes

    I agree with you Diane (hi, by the way! I knew your sister and mom, as we went to some of the same summer violin programs) with one exception that is relevant to the original article. That is that sometimes when just beginning a new activity, young kids don’t understand the nature of the commitment because they don’t understand — and can’t really understand, having not accrued the necessary life experience — the expectations and interpersonal atmosphere of the activity. They don’t know what it will feel like to be corrected in front of peers during a practice, they don’t know how stressed they’ll feel by a game or performance, they don’t know whether the activity is something they’ll find pleasure in, they don’t know what the attitude of the other kids will be like, they don’t know whether they’ll feel mutual respect for their coach or teacher. If things turn out rather differently than they expected with a new activity, and the obvious supports and strategies are not enough to make them work, I think it’s okay to sometimes make an exception to the “see it through ’til the end of term” rule.

    I very much agree with Lori in that children who are passionate and engaged will want to push themselves through work that isn’t necessarily intrinsically enjoyable for goals that they themselves hold dear. But I also think that sometimes parental scaffolding is required in terms of teaching problem-solving strategies and the routine of daily diligence that will help them achieve their goals. Some kids are temperamentally perfectionists from birth, and these in particular need a little nudging along. While they want to do the grunt-work that is necessary to move towards a long-term goal, every bit of that struggle is a slap in the face of their self-confidence eventually leading to a sort of perfectionism paralysis. So they’ll need a bit of support to believe that struggle is worthwhile and to trust that progress will occur.

  • Becca

    I think this is not a black and white thing the two situations above are very different. I agree with both posters for their situations. It has to do with what the activity is, how old the child is, how much time has been invested, and how much it would affect other people.

  • http://www.realdelia.com Delia Lloyd

    Hi all
    Thanks for all of these very thoughtful comments which are much appreciated. At this point I have only two things to add:

    1. Age. I think age is a big variable here. When my son first voiced a desire to quit violin, he was right on the cusp of adolescence. This is significant both b/c it meant that he would naturally want to push back upon/reject any sort of structure in his life not of his choosing (which I think, as parents, we need to be aware of and selectively push back against ourselves) and that he’d already invested several years in perfecting this instrument, something he would be throwing away. Kristen’s son was barely 5 when he decided to quit, which meant that a. he had no adolescent attitude to correct for and b. the costs of doing so were quite low.

    2. My son recently took his Grade 7 violin exam in the UK. (This refers not to 7th grade, but to a set of standardized tests that are given in this country to measure kids’ achievement in an instrument. They go from 1-8. Let’s not debate whether or not this system ought to exist or its effects on children. It does.) This was a huge accomplishment, and one he barely managed by the skin of his teeth. Afterwards-and before he even knew the result-he came to me, unprompted, and told me that he was proud of his violin playing and happy that it was a part of his life. I took that as a small parental victory.
    Just sayin’…

    Delia Lloyd
    http://www.realdelia.com

  • http://badatbeingmom.blogspot.com/ Cassi

    There certainly are big differences between the yes and no essays (age in particular). Personally, I’m firmly in the “yes” camp though, and I thought Lori’s comments above were excellent (except I wish she’d used capital letters where appropriate because it was difficult to read). While I’m normally a big fan of Michelle Obama, I would NEVER pick an activity out for my child that I thought would be something they wouldn’t choose themselves and then require them to do it. What a way to discourage a child!

    Probably like most parents, I’ve insisted on finishing a class or season because follow-through is important, but I’ve let my daughter explore and quit multiple times. Trumpet –one semester, dance –one class, gymnastics –one class. When she started Kempo (a martial art) we didn’t know which way it would go, but it’s been a keeper. And we don’t have to force her to practice or go to class –she pushes herself to learn things that are difficult because she loves it. I hope that’s how she travels through life.

  • Jessica Torres

    I’m having a hard time with my son staying focus in class. He takes violin and a couple sports. I sign him up to violin thinking if he learns music he might stay more focus in class!! I was worn. As I was when I signed him up for sports!! I don’t know what to do. Am I a bad mother? He is an only child and I work full time usually till 11pm. May be my son is crying out for help! I need some serious advice!! I can’t do it alone I realize now. And even if he is going to a great school I don’t want him to get kicked out and miss out on good education!!

  • Dana Cortez

    Hello,

    I’m interested in contributing to your publication. Do you have a writers guideline page that I could review
    or an email for submission or queries? I appreciate any assistance you can provide and I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you.

    Dana Cortez