Should Parents Let Their Kids Quit an Activity

As I put away my daughter’s laundry several weeks ago, I came across a crumpled mass of glittery pink polka-dot splendor: her dance-recital costume. After three years of dance classes, our 8-year-old daughter informed us that she wanted to hang up her leotard and tap shoes. When Neva told us that she wanted to quit dance lessons, a part of me rejoiced. No more schlepping back and forth to the studio. No more cajoling on the days when she lacked the energy or desire to attend class. Even better, no more shelling out nearly $1,000 a year in tuition and costume fees. I began to picture myself curled up on a new couch.

But then Neva told me why she wanted to quit. “It’s getting too hard, Mom,” she told me. Suddenly, my vision of a microsuede sectional gave way to a vision of my teenage daughter dropping out of school and living in an old car as she followed the Phish revival tour, because it was all “getting too hard.” When things start to get difficult, Neva’s first inclination is to throw in the towel, and we often let her do it. She quit swim lessons once she mastered the dog paddle, showing no desire to learn the more challenging strokes. She abandoned soccer after one summer, because she didn’t like all the running. And when she’s on the losing end of a board game, she’ll often suggest we just stop playing. (For the record, we don’t.)

Although I realize that a part of her attitude is age-appropriate, another part of me doesn’t want her to grow up believing that it’s OK to just give up when things get difficult. I don’t want to be the crazy tiger mom who pushes her child so hard that she burns out by the time she’s a teenager. However, I also don’t want to raise a kid that just gives up at the first sign of trouble. I want Neva to experience the satisfaction of overcoming challenges, of mastering something that isn’t easy.

My husband, Clay, is less bothered by our daughter’s love-it-or-leave-it attitude. He argues that at her age, Neva should be allowed to experiment, so she can figure out what she enjoys before having to commit. Quitting certain things now, he says, doesn’t mean that she will become a quitter later in life. He also points out that when Neva truly wants something, she’s usually willing to put in the effort, as she did with learning to ride a bike. If she really doesn’t like dance, then forcing her to go is probably only going to turn her off to it even more.

My aunt, an elementary-school teacher and mom to two wonderful young men, offered several points. When she was raising her kids, the most important question that she would ask was, “Who else will be affected by your quitting?” If, for example, the rest of the team was counting on them, quitting was usually out of the question. Still, she said, parents have to teach their kids to develop and respect their own belief systems—and accept that sometimes that will lead to decisions that may conflict with our own desires or belief systems.

In this case, that means I have to ask myself how important is it to me that Neva continue with dance lessons. If it’s truly important, then maybe it’s worth taking a hard line. However, if it isn’t something that is important to me, then I should perhaps trust her instincts in this case and just let it go. In the end, I have decided to let it go. For one thing, I doubt that Neva will suffer as an adult if she’s not able to master a shuffle-toe combination. Also, she is definitely not letting other people down through her quitting: The dance season at the school starts in September and runs until early June, when they have the big recital.

However, Clay and I decided that we do want her to commit to one extracurricular activity and stick with it, at least for the school year. So far, she’s narrowed down the top candidates to karate and voice. (Ideally, it will be both, and I could become mom to the world’s greatest female singing ninja.)

We are also signing her up for a few more swim lessons. It’s a life skill that she will need, especially given the amount of time we spend around the water during the summers. She doesn’t need to become the next Michael Phelps, but she does need to master the crawl. Once she’s done that, she can choose whether or not she wants to continue. Who knows? Maybe she will rediscover a love for it.

I understand all too well that our time with Neva will pass faster than we think. One day, she will venture out into the world, training wheels off, with all of the hills and valleys of life ahead of her. When she hits that inevitable pothole, rather than sitting down and weeping in defeat, I hope that we will have taught her how to get right back up, hit the pedals and climb.

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