When Is It OK to Let Kids Quit?

I signed my sons up for a class at our nature center because I thought they’d love it — but three weeks in, they’re asking if they have to go every week. I’ve probed and probed, but it doesn’t seem like the class is bad or the instructor is mean — a friend’s daughter took the class with the same instructor last year and loved it — they just don’t want to go. Should I let them quit? And if I do, am I raising them to be quitters?

It sounds like you signed your sons up for this class without really getting their opinion on whether they wanted to take it — which is fine. How will kids learn what they love if they don’t try lots of different things? Part of our job as homeschool parents is to plant seeds that might bloom into interests. But not every seed blooms. Trying lots of things means that you’ll also discover things you don’t like — and that often involves quitting something that just isn’t a good fit.

We’ve stigmatized quitting, pitting it against virtuous qualities like persistence and follow-through, but quitting isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says Shimi K. Kang, author of the book The Dolphin Way: A Parent's Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids-Without Turning into a Tiger. It’s a normal part of pre-adolescent development, as kids experiment, explore, and find their passions through trial and error. The problem, says Kang, is often that we sometimes leap right into a three-month class commitment instead of giving our kids free space to explore their interests on their own. Just like you, we think, “Oh, Marshall loves going to the nature center — I bet he’d love this nature class,” when we might be better served looking for one-day programs (check nature centers, community centers, state parks, and libraries in your neck of the woods) that let kids sample an activity without commitment. And don’t underestimate the power of free play for letting kids test out different interests — the modern-day prescription to any childhood interest tends to be a structured class, but that isn’t always the best way for kids to test the waters. Kids who have a pattern of wanting to quit activities may just need fewer activities and more free time. This may be the case with your sons — they like nature study, they just don't want to get up and do it every week in a structured way.

Now, if your sons were the ones who pushed to take this class, I’d feel differently. Yes, trial and error are an important part of finding your interests, but time and money aren’t unlimited for most of us. If a child is interested in a class or activity, it’s smart to talk about expectations up front. For team sports, choirs, theater troupes, and other activities where other players are depending on your child’s participation, your child should plan to see the season through before he signs up — part of signing on to that kind of activity is becoming part of that community. If you’re paying for a class or activity, agree together on what a “reasonable effort” before giving up entails. A full semester? A month? The length of the class? Then hold your child to her commitment. (Of course, if kids want to quit because they are being hurt, physically or emotionally, they should always be able to quit.)

Bottom line: Quitting isn’t all bad, and you should address it on a case-by-case basis before the activity even starts.

This was originally published in the spring 2015 issue of HSL.