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When Kids Want to Quit

Dilemma for Parents: Am I Raising "A Quitter"?
Many children find themselves engaged in a "second shift" of after-school activities. The soccer fields are teaming, the gymnastics schools are full, and ballet classes are in full swing. While many parents and kids find these activities to be enriching and rewarding, a certain percentage of children will want to drop out of an activity not long after they began it, yet long before they've mastered any particular skill. Should they be encouraged to "stay the course," or is calling it quits no big deal?

Last year when six-year-old Larry B. wanted to quit hockey after just two turns on the ice, his parents argued about what to do. Larry's mother shrugged and said she'd ask the league for a refund; Larry's father insisted his son keep trying. For a few more weeks, they put up with Larry's whining. His skates were too tight, the coach was mean, and the drills were boring.

"He has to learn that you don't just sail out on the ice the first time and score a winning goal," his father protested. "The kid has to appreciate that a lot of practice, sweat and hard work goes into that kind of achievement."

Larry's mother countered, "But won't he have other chances to learn that stuff? He's only six years old!"

In the end, Larry "won"; the skates came off and were packed away in the back of a closet. But months later, when the boy asked to take Tai Kwon Do classes and then wanted to quit three weeks after sign-up, his dad refused to surrender.

"He's going to go and sit there and watch the other kids, even if he won't take part in the class," Larry's dad declared. "I'm not letting my son grow up thinking that it's okay to be a quitter."

The father took his son to classes twice a week and watched with pride as the boy's early resistance melted away. Within a few weeks, he was working eagerly to earn his first Tai Kwon Do belt stripe.

One Mom, Three Quitters, No Big Deal
Amy A. has signed up her three young sons, ages four, seven, and eight, for a wide variety of after-school activities, from baseball and swimming to gymnastics and clay classes. During the preschool and kindergarten years, she found they started lots of activities, only to drop out after a few weeks.

"It was me signing them up for things I thought they'd like," she recalls. "I had this idea it would be a fun activity, but then they didn't like it. They'd participate once or twice and then never go back."

The quitting came at a substantial cost; Amy figures she dropped "a thousand dollars, at least" on classes her children never finished taking.

"My husband, if he were around more, would be more likely to march them out the door," she admits. "I think he feels the loss of the money more than I do."

Over the last few years, Amy has come to view the choice between quitting and sticking it out in terms of the activity itself.

"What's the purpose of this class?" she asks herself. "I am going to make (four-year-old) Harry take swimming classes this winter because I think it's very important for him to learn to swim. But gymnastics is in another category. That's not necessarily a life skill for me."

When it comes to kids quitting a class, Amy thinks about how she or any adult would feel trying out an activity, only to discover it wasn't much fun, after all.

"If you signed up for a class and you didn't like it, you wouldn't view yourself as a quitter if you stopped going."

To Quit or Not to Quit: Guidelines for Parents
Are you a "pushy parent" if you insist kids stick with an activity? Are you a "pushover parent" if you let them walk away after only two afternoons at soccer practice? Some thoughts from David Elkind, Ph.D., professor of child development at Tufts University, and the author of The Hurried Child:

  • Children ages nine and under don't have a clear sense yet of what kinds of activities they will like. Elkind believes "it's fine for them to give it up" if they don't appear to be enjoying an activity. Quitting probably represents no more than a feeling of "this isn't fun for me."
  • Elkind says parents should be relieved to know there is no evidence of "transfer of training." In other words, just because a child quits hockey doesn't mean he'll grow up to quit every job he has. Conversely, "Children in a Montessori preschool may learn to put their toys away after playing in a classroom, but we know from research that it doesn't transfer over to their house!"
  • Struggling with children about after-school activities tends to accelerate. In the end, it is impossible to force children to participate in a class or sport. Trying to force them may only develop anxiety that could make them even more reluctant to try other new experiences.
  • Involve children in decision-making about trying new activities, rather than deciding for yourself what you think they'll like. At the same time, Elkind advises parents to bear in mind that kids tend to overestimate how much they'll actually enjoy an activity.
  • With older children, talk in advance about what would be a reasonable trial period for a new activity. "That gives children a sense that they are sharing control," Elkind says.
  • Consider whether your child's reluctance to continue with an activity is the result of fatigue or need for more down time. Many kids are overscheduled, and may simply need more time to relax.

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