Should you let your kid quit an activity? A parenting expert says it's ok to be a quitter sometimes

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As parents, we want our kids to be resilient and rise to face any challenge. But when your child is complaining that they hate basketball or saying that they don’t want to take dance anymore (right after you’ve invested in tights, leotard and special shoes, naturally) should you force them to continue with the sport or activity?

Vanessa Lapointe, a psychologist, family educator in private practice, and author of Discipline Without Damage says that it’s okay for you to allow your child to quit an activity, provided it’s not right on the heels of a disastrous game or frustrating practice.  

“Even as adults, it’s hard for us to stick with something new—especially when we feel unsure, not good enough or out of our element,” she says. “If this is true for us as adults with fully mature brains and a decent understanding of how effort is exchanged for outcomes, imagine how much harder this is for young children! They don’t have the life experience to know how it all works.”

Giving it a go

That’s not to say that anytime your child doesn’t feel like doing something you should let them off the hook. Kids can benefit from being uncomfortable. While they may not be the best at something right off the bat, the confidence that comes from mastering or even slightly improving at an activity can be worth it.

“Sometimes a little gentle encouragement to give it a fair go is appropriate,” says Lapointe. She encourages parents to consider the child’s temperament and why the activity isn’t fulfilling before throwing in the towel.

Mary Kickel of Cincinnati, Ohio, a mom of two boys ages 11 and 13, says her rule is that everyone must complete the cycle of an activity (the season or session they signed up for) before bailing. “And we have to talk about why,” she says, adding that this step is especially important for her son with autism who may just need extra supports in place to make an activity more enjoyable.

“That said, I’ve let my kids quit soccer, violin, piano, speech and debate. Music is something people have to want to do. After a year or more of lessons if things aren’t clicking, we let it go.”

Whose dream is it anyway?

In the Netflix documentary Beckham, David’s mother recounts watching her husband put him through endless drills in order to become a professional soccer player. But even if you’re not trying to get your kid onto Manchester United, many parents may be tempted to push their child to succeed at a sport or activity. Lapointe says that this often happens when parents put their own unfulfilled dreams onto their kids.

“Young children do not yet have the neural architecture and emotional maturity to understand the exchange of time and effort for an outcome,” she says. “Somewhere around age 10 they come into that understanding and from there it makes more sense to have discussions about commitment and seeing something through, and about training hard and pushing yourself further.” She says that when kids are younger it really should be about inspiring participation in activities that are joy-filled, playful and fun. “Our job is to grow children who are hardy, not hardened,” she says.

Let kids have a voice

Kickel says that another strategy she uses with her boys is to check in with them periodically to see if they are still benefiting from their after-school pursuits.

“I check in for activities that we’ve done a long time, such as a writing workshop or art class and ask if they are still getting something out of it,” she says. “If they aren’t, we talk about it and decide whether or not to be done.”

If your child is younger, encourage them to try all sorts of different things and see what sparks their imagination and interest.

“As our children get older it is more appropriate for them to have a bigger voice when it comes to selecting activities and pursuits, with maybe a little encouragement from parents to stick it out on the harder days,” says Lapointe. “Within this, it is okay to have expectations for our children around developing good health habits, including being active – and to allow your child a place in the discussion about how that will be accomplished.”

A learning experience

Lapointe says that if your kid is going to stick with a non-preferred activity that it should be an opportunity to practice adaptation, which is a precursor to resilience. But for some kids, this process will be too emotionally taxing. “It’s really important that you only stick it out once the situation and your child’s individual needs including their age, temperament and what else is going on in their life have been carefully considered,” she says.

Lapointe suggests making a tough experience better by talking with the coach about shifting something so it works a little better for your child. Otherwise, it may be time to move on.

“There has been no fallout from quitting,” says Kickel. “There’s only been more trust in our relationships.” She says a huge benefit has been that her boys are more likely to try something new because they know they won’t be forced to continue if it isn’t working.

“It’s okay to let it go,” she says. “They are their own people.”

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