When is it OK to let kids quit their activities?

It was game three of the fall soccer season.

As other girls scrambled to get the ball, our 7-year-old, Julie, stood there in the middle of the field. Staring. Unmoving. Scowling.

When the ball slowed a couple inches from her feet, she scurried away screaming. Tears streaming down her face, she ran to the sidelines and begged her coach to take her out.

My husband Scott and I were bewildered. And angry.

What the heck was wrong with our daughter? Why couldn’t she just put forth a little effort? We knew we didn’t have a soccer star in the making, but we wanted her to at least try.

Despite Julie’s pleas to skip soccer every week, we forced her to finish the season. Five more practices. Five more games. She was miserable. We all dreaded Saturday mornings.

It would have been so easy to give up, but Scott and I agreed we didn’t want to raise a quitter.

We aren’t the only parents who have been faced with the quitting predicament. While some parents make their kids stick it out, others decide it’s simply not worth the hassle. Even experts don’t always agree how to handle the issue of quitting.

Get to the bottom of it

Whether they’re 4 or 14, kids will offer you a reason for wanting to quit. Parents will need to figure out the real reason. For young children, it could simply be boredom or the realization that the activity isn’t what they expected. Maybe they enjoy the games or recitals, but not the everyday practices. Or, sometimes, kids need to just get over the beginner’s hump.

“Get to the bottom of why,” says Robin Shapiro, a Highland Park-based child psychologist. “It might be something that’s fixable.”

Talking to the coaches, instructors or other parents might help determine what is most bothering the child, Shapiro says. In addition, parents should attend practices, lessons, classes or rehearsals to see for themselves what might be wrong.

At Allegro Music and Dance Academy, which has locations throughout the southwest suburbs, students quit for different reasons. “Sometimes they’ve accomplished their goals. Sometimes it’s time constraints, but when a kid comes to mom and says ‘I don’t want to do piano anymore,’ it’s one of my favorite topics,” says Tim Veurink, Allegro’s director.

Veurink, who has three kids, understands what it’s like to be a parent whose children want to quit an activity. “We’ve been through it. We get it. We understand.”

Parents need to talk with their children and understand why they want to quit. Feeling unsuccessful or inferior could cause a child to want to quit. If that is the case, it might be a matter of more practice or encouragement.

“Have they just gotten to a place where they find it requires effort? The important things in life require effort. It is frustrating to me when parents come to me and say ‘They just don’t want to do it anymore.’ She’s been playing piano for two months and she just realized she’s not going to instantly be great,” Veurink says. “That’s a problem for me.”

When quitting is OK

While it’s important to talk to your kids before giving up, there are certain circumstances where quitting is the better option.

Finishing a session or season is ideal, but if children are miserable and anxious, it might be OK to call it quits early, says Angela Hunsicker, a Chicago-based licensed clinical social worker.

“I think if you gave it a good try and they still didn’t warm up to it, then it’s OK to quit. If not, it’s going to be miserable for not only your child, but they’ll feel like they have to act out to get your attention,” Hunsicker says.

Quitting is a natural phenomenon in sports, says Christopher Hickey, the director of the Institute for Sport Coaching, based in Massachusetts, which provides education, training and consulting services nationwide. If a child isn’t learning or advancing and they’re not enjoying the activity, it’s probably time to stop, says Hickey.

“Why leave the child in a negative environment? They’re supposed to be moving and enjoying themselves. If those needs aren’t being met, why stick it out?”

Set expectations

Though quitting is acceptable for the right reasons, there should be guidelines when children participate in activities, says Hickey.

Before enrolling in an activity, parents and their children should first understand what is expected: when the activity takes place, how long the activity will be each time and for how many weeks or months the activity will occur.

Children, especially those older than 7, should know the ramifications of quitting. Sometimes a child might be letting down teammates, coaches or instructors when they quit mid-season, says Russ Naumenko, hockey director and general manager at American Heartland Ice Arena in Chicago. Kids rarely quit the hockey teams, but last year, one of the goalies quit mid-season.

“It was catastrophic to the team,” Naumenko says. “We usually try to tell them to wait it out the whole season.”

This teaches children responsibility, accountability and integrity, Shapiro says, even when it’s something they don’t want to do. Once a child is enrolled, they should be expected to finish and meet the commitments involved. Then, children should have the ability to choose different activities or continue with the same one.

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