Your Kid Wants To Quit An Activity. Do You Let Them?
It’s important to respect their autonomy... but those cleats weren’t free, either.
We all know that kids are way more scheduled than they were back in our day, whether that’s soccer or piano or chess club or whatever. But what happens when they say they’re done with something you’ve paid perfectly good money for? Today, we’re tossing the question to one of our contributors, Vanessa Kroll Bennett. Vanessa is a mom of four kids who ran a youth sports program for nearly a decade. She has tons of experience on every side of this conundrum — here’s what Vanessa had to say.
Q: My 10-year-old son wants to quit the soccer team. I think a big reason is because he feels he's not the best player on the team. I want him to be happy but I’m worried this has nothing to do with soccer but how difficult it is to face adversity. Part of me wants to tell him suck it up and get through it. I also believe when you sign up for something you finish it, not only because it's what you do but because it shows the team and coach respect. And that with more practice and a positive attitude he will get better and might regret quitting. When do you tell your kids to "suck it up" and when do you let them quit? — A mom looking for guidance
A: This is such a tough question and the answer is, as with all things parenting, it depends. It depends on who your kid is and what kind of shape they’re in physically, emotionally and socially. I know, such an annoying non-answer answer. But there are a lot of constructive ways to get to an answer that’s right for your family and some guidelines going forward.
First, you need to do some fact-finding. You know your kid wants to quit but you’re not entirely sure why. You think you have a sense, but you don’t want to make any assumptions. Not everyone has a kid who will share their inner thoughts and not every kid can get underneath their feelings enough to articulate them — not every adult can! — but here are some ways in.
- “Can you tell me a little more about why you want to quit?” (Don’t tell your kid “I know you want to quit because you’re not the best player.”)
- “Is there anything I can do to help make the experience more fun for you?” (Usually the answer is NOTHING! But at least you're showing empathy.)
- “When you think about going to soccer, what goes through your head? What does it feel like in your body?” (Some kids are more visceral than verbal and this option gives them another way to process emotion.)
Second, make sure there’s not something insidious going on of which you’re unaware — an unkind teammate, a maniacal coach, or an overzealous parent on the sidelines. Digging deeper might not necessarily involve talking to your kid, because that will likely devolve into the age-old question: “Did someone do something to you? Was someone mean?” And there’s a good chance your kid will clam up.
Instead, you might need to go observe a practice, or send a trusted friend or caregiver. Or maybe go to a game and really watch the behavior of the coach and the parents and how your kid reacts. On the flipside, is it possible your kid is actually having a great time while playing, but just grumpy when they get home? Sometimes what they report to us after the fact, likely some version of “I hate it!” is not an accurate reflection of their experience in the moment.
If none of these steps clear it up, you’re faced with this conundrum: Do I let my kid quit something just because they’re not having fun?
I was in this position a couple months ago. My middle schooler was playing lacrosse for the first time and seemed to be enjoying it until after a couple of weeks of practice, he came home and told me he didn’t like it and wanted to quit. My first instinct was to just shut down the conversation and tell him that it was non-negotiable. But I realized that if I did that, I was going to miss out on the chance to learn more about what was going through his head. So instead I asked a few questions:
- You seemed to be enjoying it before — what’s changed?
- Is there any specific reason that you’re not having fun?
- Do you think when you start playing games it will be more exciting?
- Do you find yourself improving?
I didn’t feed him answers reflecting my own anxieties. I gave him open-ended questions that were not so vast that they felt bottomless. I also had time on my side: spring break was coming up so there was a natural waiting period where nothing could be done anyway.
He explained that practices had gotten more serious and weren’t as fun anymore. So I said two things: One, let’s wait until games start and it might turn out to be a lot more fun when you’re competing. And two, let’s recharge over spring break and give yourself a rest. Lo and behold, after spring break they started playing games and all of a sudden lacrosse was fun again. You might say I punted the issue — I didn’t say no and I didn’t say yes — but once I knew my kid’s safety wasn’t at stake, I waited to see how things played out.
If your kid isn’t miserable, they’re not having a traumatizing experience and they aren't physically threatened by the nature of the sport, then my blanket answer is that they finish out the commitment. While I wouldn’t make my kids stick with something that is making them profoundly unhappy (I did that with one kid and I’m still hearing about it a decade later), I do believe there is value in seeing something through, proving to oneself it’s uncomfortable yet manageable, and showing commitment to a greater good beyond the individual. And frankly, if you shell out a lot of money on fees and uniforms, it is absolutely appropriate to include that as a reason why your kid has to stick it out.
Vanessa Kroll Bennett is the co-author of the forthcoming This Is So Awkward, co-host of The Puberty Podcast, President of Content at Order of Magnitude, the founder of Dynamo Girl, a company using sports and puberty education to empower kids, and the author of the Uncertain Parenting Newsletter, musings on raising adolescents. You can follow her on Instagram @vanessakrollbennett.