Your daughter begs and pleads to learn the piano, only to kick and scream when her teacher arrives for her fourth private lesson. Meanwhile, your son was psyched to start soccer, but after accidentally scoring a goal for the opposing team, he's too embarrassed to return to the field.
When one of your child's activities begins to lose its luster, parents are often torn between giving into a child who wants to quit and the desire to teach him a lesson in commitment and giving something his best shot.
"As a parent, you have to ask yourself: What do I want my child to get out of this activity?" says Diane Lang, a New Jersey-based therapist and parenting educator. "Are you trying to teach them commitment and responsibility, or are you trying to help them find their passion and develop a willingness to try new things?
The start of the school year brings new experiences for your child to learn and grow, and those experiences include educational and recreational opportunities that occur outside of the classroom. The benefits for children who remain actively involved in extracurricular activities are undeniable – studies show these opportunities can help kids develop their creativity, learn time management skills, build self-confidence, relieve stress, and, of course, provide lots of fun and the opportunity to make new friends.
"It's important to expose your child to a wide range of activities to allow them to discover what they enjoy and where their strengths lie," adds Dr. Peter Berzins, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Pompton Plains.
However, parents should keep in mind that children's interests are constantly changing and evolving – just like they are – and they may eventually ask to quit any new activity they take on. Few people harbor the same passions or interests for their entire lives, and child prodigies are few and far between. Just because Pablo Picasso painted his first oil painting at the ripe age of 8 and Mozart began tickling the ivories at 4 doesn't mean your child has to map out his entire future before he's old enough to ride a two-wheeler.
"It's important for kids to explore and discover what their natural talents and curiosities are," says Heidi Flax, a psychotherapist in private practice in Hackensack.
As children enter second and third grade, they often start expressing interest in extracurricular activities. Your child's teacher or principal might provide a list of activities that are available at the school. Your daughter may befriend a new classmate who is currently taking ballet lessons – and suddenly becomes desperate to don a tutu.
Your child may also stumble across fliers posted on bulletin boards, or be lured in by commercials or advertisements about local karate studios or acting classes.
"Young children don't yet have a sense of what they like, so before the age of 10, they're interested in exploring. They're starting to experiment with different activities because it's natural and they're curious," Lang says. "If they're no longer getting pleasure from an activity, they may ask to stop not because they're quitters, but because they're figuring out who they are and where they want to go."
Why Kids Quit
According to Berzins, one of the most common reasons children are inclined to quit new activities is a fear of failure. "These children often have high expectations of themselves, and expect their performance to be perfect," he says. Children who might be exhibiting these perfectionist tendencies need plenty of encouragement to boost their self-esteem, and parents can also help their children select activities in which they are most likely to succeed. It's also important to help kids keep expectations in check. "The goal of joining a baseball team may not be to become the MVP, but to have a team experience and try the hardest," Berzins says.
Children who are struggling with the pressure to juggle a myriad of activities on top of homework, chores, play dates and other responsibilities are likely to ask to quit some of their activities in order to find some time just to be kids. "After they've been in school all day, they're exhausted and overwhelmed and they want to quit … and don't know how to say it's simply because they're overscheduled," says Lang. If your child is complaining about being tired or her grades have been slipping, reducing her activities to the ones she's truly passionate about at the moment, may keep her from asking to quit all of them.
While there's a danger in forcing your children to continue a certain activity – they may lose interest all together – Claudia Olave-Guillermo, a clinical social worker in Pomona, N.Y., says there's an even more serious danger in piling too many extracurriculars on their plate. "Children can become anxious or act out when they're feeling too much pressure to juggle their academics and activities," she warns.
You want to encourage their interests, but no parent wants to invest in pricy Tae Kwon Do classes only to watch their child quit a month later – especially when a financial commitment has already been made. That's why parents should prepare children for what a new activity will entail, and discuss any time or financial commitments in advance.
If adults are tentative about making commitments in their careers or relationships, imagine how demanding a full year of saxophone lessons might sound to your child.
That's why having an honest, realistic conversation with your child about the obligations a new activity might involve – like having to forfeit some weekend down-time for practice – can help decrease the likelihood of your son or daughter quitting prematurely.
Parents may also want to take the type of activity into account when a child asks to quit. If your son joins the swim team but wants to stop competing soon after mastering the breaststroke, or your daughter's grades improve after joining the math club, but she prefers to come straight home after school, experts advise determining whether the activity is providing an important benefit…or if it's just supposed to be for fun.
"Swimming lessons may be necessary for safety reasons, while violin lessons can be seen as an enrichment activity," Berzins explains.
The same rule applies if the child is joining a team sport, as opposed to taking private piano lessons or enrolling an activity that they engage in independently. "I tell kids that if they choose to join a team, they are making a commitment to be a part of that team…and that they have teammates who rely on them," says Flax.
Indeed, Olave-Guillermo encourages her own children to discuss their decisions to quit not just with her, but with their coach, instructor, or anyone else involved in the activity.
"It teaches them responsibility and accountability," she says.
Praise, Not Pressure
Many adults reminisce about their own childhood interests, but those fond memories of riding horseback or scoring touchdowns might be causing you to heap unnecessary pressure on your child. Decisions about after-school activities should be based upon the child's current interest in cartwheels and back flips – not a potential scholarship in gymnastics when they head off to college. "You have to ask yourself if the activity is what your child really wants to do, or if it's something that you want them to do," says Lang.
While "soccer mom" can be a term of endearment for involved parents, experts caution against becoming too entrenched in your child's activities – like shouting at the referee for a bad call or over-training your child to compete in a track meet. "Children often quit new activities…because of an awareness that they may be under-performing in the eyes of a parent, coach, teacher, or peers," says Berzins.
When it comes to keeping your children engaged in their activities, praise is the name of the game. "Parents should remember to praise their child for her efforts rather than her performance, which leads to higher self-esteem and more likelihood of trying new activities," notes Berzins.
Know Your Child
Perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle in choosing activities that your child will love and stick with in the long run is considering your child's unique personality and interests. Social butterflies may do well playing team sports, while those who prefer to learn independently may thrive in an after-school art program. Some children are highly competitive or enjoy being in the spotlight, while others may prefer more relaxed activities that allow them to explore their own creativity. "Parents should do some investigating beforehand … the activity fits the child's personality," Flax says.
Parents can also tune in to the precise reasons why their child may want to quit. A bad grade on a math test may have shaken his confidence in learning multiplication tables, or a beautiful summer afternoon may not seem the ideal time for a piano lesson. Your child may be exhausted from a poor night's sleep, or resent having to miss a friend's birthday party because she had a horseback riding lesson. "When you know your child, you can usually tell what the problem really is…when they just don't feel like doing something and when it's time to let them quit," says Lang.