Why It's Okay If Our Kids Refuse To Participate

by Stephanie Hanrahan
Originally Published: 
A kid hiding under a blanket, refusing to participate in a birthday party activity

Recently at a birthday party I watched a woman approach the hostess and politely report that her child was refusing to participate and they needed to leave. She was poised and calm, steady in voice, but as she spoke, I caught sight of a familiar look in her eye, one I could pick out of a lineup: disappointment.

Her daughter wasn’t screaming or thrashing. She wasn’t in the throes of a tantrum. She just didn’t want to do a cooking class—and no amount of coaxing was going to change that.

I heard the mother start to explain herself, explain her daughter, as if one mother should ever have to explain to another why a child is acting unfavorably (we should all be well-versed in that). She began with, “I don’t understand…she’s usually not like this…I know she’d love it if she would try.”

Yep, I hear you, mama. I get it.

So I told her just that.

I reached out and grabbed this strangers arm and said those exact words, “I get it.” She nodded, tried not to release the tears that were forming, and gave a few more unnecessary apologies before leaving.

It wasn’t the place to spill to this stranger just how much I got what she was feeling, but I hope some of that transferred through my touch. I hope she knows she did nothing wrong, nor did her daughter. That kids are kids—they have their own will, they have their own way. Often a way we don’t understand. I’m sure her daughter would’ve loved it, maybe tomorrow she will, but not today. Today wasn’t her day, and somehow as moms we need to be comfortable enough to say that’s okay.

But I get how horrible it feels to have your child pivot and turn away from your best laid plans. I’ve driven hours to a beach only to have my daughter refuse to the leave the car because the sun was too bright. I watched the waves crash, and kids play, and memories being made for every family but mine as I drove away with heavy frustration, the day I envisioned, the day I expected, gone.

And when this happens, it’s hard not to misplace your feelings onto the child. I’m guilty of it, that day and many others. After all, you just want the best for them. Don’t they see that? Don’t they appreciate the effort we make? Our hard work? Our sleepless nights spent completing school projects, or folding laundry, or working two jobs to afford the sport they just refused to play?

But maybe we need to quit the blame game when our kids veer off course and instead start praising them for having a voice beyond ours. Because when should we ever award blind compliance? A little pushback is good. I hope my daughter not only speaks her mind, but learns to breathe fire. If she participates in something against her will only because someone else wants her to? Well, that’s the peer pressure we all fear they’ll fall victim to. Don’t let it start at home.

That little girl didn’t want to cook, she found the courage to say so, and that wonderful mother respected her wishes. She may have been disappointed, and had the right to be, but remember, mamas: this whole life with them will probably never look like what we had in our heads. And that’s gotta be okay. We’ve got to learn when to push our children to perform versus when we need to back off and say, “I get it. This isn’t for you. Let’s find what is.”

Your son may not play football just because his father was a college athlete. You know what? That’s okay! Music lessons sound pretty dang cool. Try that, and then try other things until you find their fit. I’d rather see my child smile doing something they love then resent me while doing something they hate.

Or perhaps you had a bunch of babies because you were so close with your own big family, but right now they can’t stand each other. You know what? That’s okay! Give them time, they’ll circle around. And if they don’t, there are a lot of other beautiful bonds made in this lifetime beyond blood.

Or maybe, just maybe, you really love to socialize with others. Your soul is fueled by deep and plentiful relationships. You love to engage, and entertain, and can’t believe you’ve been blessed with a daughter to carry on endless conversations and traditions with.

And then you find out she has autism. A child whose greatest challenge is your greatest strength: connection.

You know what? That’s okay too.

Because if you’re careful, and watch very closely, she’ll teach you a lesson we all should’ve learned long ago: it’s the quality, not the quantity, that really counts. In both friendships and memories made too.

More is not always more.

Let’s let go of our plans for the day, for the life of our little ones, and let’s hope that we’ve raised them well enough to speak whenever they hear a stirring in them that something’s not right. “I’d rather not,” is an okay thing to say. Let them practice saying it to you, so they can confidently say it to the world.

And there’s no reason at all to be disappointed in that.

This article was originally published on