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This week, after only two practices, my 11-year-old son quit basketball. Before the season, he was genuinely excited to play (which is sort of remarkable when one considers his three-year lifetime record is 0-27), so I paid the money and requested his uniform.
And still, I practically encouraged him to quit.
Three years ago, I signed my daughter up for water polo. She had never been on a team in her life, but with puberty impending I thought she should get some exercise. Through tears, anxiety attacks and a good deal of nudging, my daughter was made to push through a tough start. Although she wanted to quit many times, I wouldn't allow her to ditch the team.
Now, three years later, water polo is her life.
Why the different approaches for my kids? Let me explain.
These days, young children don't have a lot of down time. They are typically signed up for a wide range of afterschool activities, from music lessons and baseball to tutoring and Scouts. Try finding a playdate on a Wednesday afternoon and you will see what I mean. Kids are booked up. This can be a good thing. Some kids are spending up to seven hours a day looking at screens. Getting them out of the house and off their devices is beneficial.
Occasionally, however, things don't go as planned.
For a variety of reasons, there are times when a child wants to call it quits. It then becomes a tricky parenting decision whether to let them opt out or to force completion. The most typical argument against quitting is that quitting begets quitting. Doing it once makes it all too easy to quit when life gets hard. However, there are often very compelling reasons children should be released from a commitment.
When to Stick
For some children, starting something new brings on a tsunami of fear and anxiety. It doesn't matter how much they want to do it or if it was their own idea. The anxiety of a new social situation or of the requirements of the activity can be overwhelming. This was always the case with my daughter. The same quitting desire reared its head whenever she began any new endeavour.
Quitting for the anxious child can become a way of life if she is never taught how to manage distress. Instead of dropping out, use calming techniques to help the child keep it together. Provide support during the class as needed. With each successful stressful situation the child conquers, strength and resiliency are bolstered for the future.
Similarly, children who tend to be quitters in general when life just doesn't go their way should be encouraged stick it out. Some kids struggle with losing or not being the best or most valuable player. Their inclination may be to pooh-pooh the league, coach or other players right before begging to drop out. These kids need to be pushed to persevere through less than ideal circumstances. That's when growth happens. The child doesn't have to sign up again for the activity but must finish out the season.
When to Call It Quits
Parents sometimes can't help but live out their unfulfilled dreams through their children. (Seriously, we are all guilty of this at times.) And some parents push kids into activities for the sake of checking off boxes on the inevitable college application. The problem is that when the activity is more for the parent than the child, massive amounts of nagging and arguing ensue to keep the child on task.
If a child is begging to quit an activity that he previously devoted a good deal of time and effort to but is no longer interested in, let it go. There is no value in demanding a child continue with piano or Taekwondo just because you've invested seven years. Think of the opportunity cost here.
There are occasions when kids are signed up for an activity at the wrong level. Maybe it's travelling soccer or competitive diving or Triple A baseball. But after the start it turns out the child isn't really up to the task due to no fault of his own. Let the child level down or step out.
There is one more occasion when children should be allowed out of their commitment — when it's just no fun for anyone. Occasionally, coaches are abusive, players are bullies or the program is dangerously disorganised. This was the case before my son's recent drop out. The young hired coach (who didn't know my son's name after two weeks) barely batted an eye when my son struggled to breathe. It was all drills, no personal connection and no enjoyment. Sometimes being on the team causes undue stress on the child or family. When the strain outweighs the joy, drop out.
There is one caveat for quitting. When a player departs a squad it can negatively affect everyone left on that team. Parents should work to minimise the impact on others whenever possible.
The Bottom Line
Activities are meant to be fun and enriching as well as character and skill building. Parents should choose sports and classes carefully and work to prepare children to avoid the need to quit. However, if there is a persuasive reason, don't waste anyone's time. Childhood is too short.