Quitters never win — or do they? Kids are involved in a large number and wide variety of activities, but they don’t do them all forever. Inevitably, most children say they want to quit an activity. We asked the experts for advice about what parents should do when kids say that they’d like to hang up their jersey for good, move on from a musical instrument, or be done with a club.
When should a child be permitted to quit?
“When a child expresses the desire to quit, they have shared something very personal and should be taken seriously. Talk with them and take the time to understand why,” says John Engh, chief operating officer of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, America’s leading advocate for positive and safe sports for children. “You’ve got to get to the truth to be able to deal with the situation effectively.”
There is no need to make a quick decision. Ritamaria Laird, clinical director at Individual and Family Connection in Chicago, advises parents to take time to understand their child’s reasoning and perspective. In doing so, “you not only provide your child the opportunity to reflect on his own experience, but you give your child the opportunity to communicate his feelings and to problem-solve,” Laird says. “You are also sending the message to your child that you care that he is fulfilled and happy in his extracurricular time.”
Kids have a lot of reasons for wanting to quit, and often they say it is because they just don’t like something. That can be a perfectly good reason. “Sports can be great for kids — but they’re not great for all kids,” says Engh. “Some children will find their passion in music or another activity. There isn’t anything wrong with allowing them to step away and try other activities that are more suitable for them.”
Exploration should be encouraged. Childhood is the time to try out as many different interests as possible. “Your child will most likely have more short-lived experiences than long-term commitments due to the never-ending options,” says Laird, noting that adults also try out hobbies and take breaks from others to fit in new interests.
Timing, however, is hugely important when it comes to moving on from an activity. It’s an important life lesson to learn that you can’t quit when others are depending on you. “Quitting when you are on a team and only halfway through the season, unless there is an extenuating circumstance, isn’t OK. Kids need to learn that they made a commitment. Kids should be expected to fulfill that commitment,” says John O’Sullivan, founder and CEO of the Changing the Game Project, which aims to make sports a healthy, positive, and rewarding experience for children and their family. He says that when the season is over, kids are free to quit.
O’Sullivan also notes that as kids get older, it can become more difficult to keep up with multiple sports. “If a high-schooler only wants to play one sport and not three, that should be OK,” he says.
Olympic gold medalist gymnast Nastia Liukin told her mother that she wanted to quit gymnastics. Her mother agreed that she could do so, but only after she had a good day in the gym first. Laird approves of that approach.
“We all have bad days and just want to quit,” she says. “If your child had a bad day at practice, she needs help processing the experience, coping and problem-solving. Under stress, your child’s logical ‘thinking’ brain is not accessible. She is only operating from her ‘emotional brain,’ which is responsible for ‘fight or flight.’”
It’s possible that after a good day, your child may change their mind and discover that they really don’t want to leave the activity after all. Should they still want to quit, “giving them the opportunity to leave on a positive note gives them the chance to feel empowered, obtain a sense of mastery and leave with positive memories,” says Laird.
When a parent doesn’t want to let go
Parents are often hugely involved in their kids’ activities. Whether by coaching, forming friendships with other parents, or watching kids participate in an activity they once enjoyed, parents are often so invested that it can be tough to hear that their child no longer wants to continue.
First, parents need to make sure that they aren’t the ones pressuring their kids, which can make kids want to opt out.
“When a child is enrolled in sports, parents often are under the impression that how that youngster performs is a reflection on their parenting abilities. What often happens is that the parents of those children who may not be as talented as the other kids begin applying extra pressure and pushing them to perform at higher levels. This usually results in a stressful and unpleasant experience for the child and oftentimes leads them to want to quit,” says Engh.
Parents also need to recognize that their kids are not extensions of them, but rather individuals with their own talents and interests. They may need to try out several different activities before finding the right one, and it’s important that parents give them the space to discover their own passions and interests.
“Parents need to expose their children to a variety of experiences,” says Engh. “If a child tires of a sport and wants to pursue something else, no matter how much the parent loved playing the sport when they were growing up, it’s their child’s time now and their child must have the freedom to pursue their interests. “
One reason it is important to really understand a child’s desire to quit is that sometimes it can indicate the possibility of abuse, mental health concerns or other emotional challenges. If a child used to enjoy an activity and has a sudden change of heart, Laird encourages parents to be especially curious.
Red flags suggesting potential abuse include:
- Coach or instructor treating your child differently than other children
- Coach or instructor spending more time with your child than other children
- Coach or instructor attempting to control you or your child
- Your child accepting gifts from a mentor
- Sudden aggression from your child
- Wanting to quit, or refusal to attend practices/meets
- Sleep disturbances
- Eating disturbances
- Mood swings
- Change in grades or school performance
- Fear of bathrooms, closed room, locker rooms
- Bruises on body
Even if a child isn’t being abused, O’Sullivan says that being bullied by other participants or dealing with a coach who is “really far off the reservation” can be valid reasons to quit. To avoid the latter, parents should know how the program in which their child is participating handles the vetting and training of coaches, teachers and others interacting with their child. Their history should be checked, periodic evaluations should be conducted, and there should be an established system to remove a coach or teacher who is not meeting expectations.
In addition, there should be a training program in place. “Parents wouldn’t enroll their child in a school that didn’t have trained teachers, so it makes no sense to allow their child to play on a team with a volunteer coach who has no training in working with a group of children,” says Engh.
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Ways to reduce the chances of your kid wanting to quit
Helping kids develop problem-solving skills can be a big help, given that sometimes they don’t necessarily want to quit but don’t know any other way to address an obstacle they face at the activity.
Another way to avoid kids wanting to quit is to ensure that they are in an activity that is a good fit from the start. That includes balancing the child’s developmental level, interest level, the commitment expected from the family, and the family’s existing schedule and prior commitments.
Parents should also consider whether it is an environment in which their child will thrive. If the child likes a sport and wants a more challenging opportunity to develop their skills, a travel team is an option, but Engh cautions, “It’s just important that it’s the decision of the child, and not the parent pushing the youngster to a more competitive level that they’re not ready for, or not interested in being a part of — because that will lead them to quitting.”
He adds that the more informed parents are before enrolling their child, the greater the chance for a successful experience and the less likely that parents will be fielding a request to quit mid-season.
Helping a child quit
How much help kids need with quitting often depends on their age. Parents can’t expect a four-year-old to tell her soccer coach she’s quitting, while most older kids should be able to handle the conversations, with different levels of parental support depending on the child.
“Don’t do for kids what they can do for themselves,” says O’Sullivan. “Kids are capable of talking with their coaches. I have a 10-year-old daughter who is a gymnast and when she’s wondering what to do to move up to the next level, she sits down with her coach. She owns it. The same is true of quitting.”.
Parents may support high school students by working through talking points and role-playing with them. “Helping your child talk to a coach about leaving the team is a wonderful opportunity to practice assertiveness,” says Laird. “Your child will feel empowered by the success of communicating his needs.”
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