In a world where we seemingly can’t agree on anything, it seems that one thing we can all agree on is that children should never, EVER quit a sport mid-season. This year, my four-year-old son, Nico, joined a soccer team. Then, before the season came to an end, and despite his progress, we allowed him to stop attending.
After our family made this decision, I posted about it on Instagram, and included a poll asking my followers for their thoughts on quitting. Now, I already knew that parenting consensus is generally that we shouldn’t allow our children to quit sports, but I was somewhat surprised to see that almost every single person, even those who were childless, answered that children should never be allowed to quit. So, here’s my two cents on why I committed this parenting offense, and why I’m cool with it.
Despite happily agreeing that joining a soccer team sounded fun, Nico’s first practice started off with some big feelings. When through tears he insisted that he wanted to go home, I told him: “You’re part of a team.” As he blubbered in my lap, I added: “I can’t make you play if you don’t want to, but we are going to stay here until the game is over to support your teammates.”
His team consisted of eight little boys, who took turns playing four at a time, leaving plenty of time for breaks and encouragement on the sideline for the non-playing mini Beckhams and Messis. Despite the rough start, and before the first game was over, we managed to coax Nico to join in! He was nervous, but he overcame his nerves and tried something new. We called it a huge success, and picked up ice cream on the way home.
The next week, after a pep talk in the car, Nico unbuckled his car seat and walked to the field confidently — and then promptly fell to his knees in tears. There come those big four-year-old feelings again! We reassured him, and coaxed a little too … and got him on the field before the end of the game. Again, we called it a success, as he was learning, and we were standing our ground — something parenting blogs and books teach as parenting gold.
Fast forward several weeks to midway through the season, and Nico had accepted soccer as a way of life. He no longer cried, and he had mastered independently walking onto the field each weekend to join his team of soccer-playing tots. He passed to his teammates, and even scored a goal, and all the while his father and I cheered happily from the sidelines.
This past week, while watching our spunky, character-filled little Nico on the field, something became obvious to my husband and me. He was 100% not even remotely interested in the game, or even having fun. Competitive by nature, he enjoyed the opportunities for running, and he found some mild excitement in out-running the other kids across the field. However, he was so uninterested in the game that he would sometimes start examining the paint on the goal post… or the clouds in the sky. Yes, he was playing, and dutifully kicking the ball, but it became obvious that it was just because we told him he had to. Nothing more.
That night, after tucking the kids into bed, my husband and I discussed Nico’s soccer experience over secret parents-only bowls of ice cream on the couch. Nico was set to play again the next morning. We reflected on what we really wanted for Nico, as far as lessons to be learned through joining soccer. Things that we discussed included: teaching him tolerance for frustration, good sportsmanship, social skills, and a love for sports and being active. Nico had already overcome his nerves and frustrations, and he had successfully joined his team on the field for several games now. He had learned about sportsmanship through passing the ball and cheering for his friends. But despite all that, he was also learning to grin and bear it, and to suck it up… all because mom and dad said “you have to.” And yes, there are times in life where we need to suck it up and do it… but does playing soccer when you’re four really need to be one of those times? We went to bed that night, and decided that we’d just take Nico to soccer the next morning, and see from there. After all, the season was almost over anyway.
The following morning, our usually high-spirited and energetic Nico silently gazed upon his breakfast of mango and yogurt — a favorite that is usually well received and quickly devoured. My husband broke the unusual silence with a question: “Nico,” he asked, “Would you like to stop going to soccer?”
This simple question broke the floodgates, and Nico crumpled into a sad, crying little pile of pajama-clad boy, who I quickly swept into my lap. Through sobs, he nodded his head yes. His unusually emotional reaction was all we needed to see to know this unconventional choice was the right one. Pushing Nico to attend soccer against his will wasn’t serving him. He had already learned from, and reaped the benefits of, overcoming his nerves and getting on the field. I can confidently say that in this situation, pushing him to keep attending wouldn’t have been the right choice.
I believe that as parents, we are always preparing our children for life outside the nest. My ultimate goal for my kids when they spread their wings, is that they know how to be happy — as happiness doesn’t always magically fall into our laps. Part of that is teaching them that their happiness is in their own hands, and that if something is making them unhappy, they have the power to make real changes. Quitting soccer was a lesson in giving new things a fair shot, but also knowing that we can let go of things that are weighing us down and instead, actively pursue happiness.
Like my friend wisely told me: “As an adult if we join a gym and then stop going, that’s seen as a normal, sane choice… so why do we hold our kids against harsher standards?”