It all began in the backyard, where my six-year-old daughter, Jaza, was playing soccer with her big brother, Ty. I watched in awe as my daughter eagerly jumped on the ball like a seasoned goalkeeper.
Jaza had never before expressed much interest in sports — she was into art, horses and tea parties. So I was surprised to hear her repeated and impassioned pleas to sign up for soccer. Delighted that she might develop a love for a sport that is popular in my household, I sat her down and explained the rules: She had to go twice a week, rain or shine, and she couldn’t quit — at least not until the end of the season. She said she understood.
But after the first few weeks, Jaza started complaining, whining, crying and protesting before every practice and game. Having seen her score plenty of goals and enjoy herself out on the field, I didn’t understand her sudden change of heart. When I asked, she said she didn’t like the “pushy girls” or the sharks-and-minnows game they played at practice. Nothing dramatic. No bullying, no problem with ability. So I steeled myself against her tears and screams, and made her go. With every passing week, however, my resolve weakened and I began to question whether making her continue was the right path.
Setting the precendent
It’s a question countless parents face: Should you force your kids to follow through with an activity they’ve signed on to? The first time you face the decision, it can feel as though you’re setting a precedent for their entire childhood. At least that’s how it feels to me: If I let her give up soccer, she’ll become a quitter for life. If I force her to stick it out, she’ll hate soccer — and me. It feels like a lose-lose situation.
Like so many of our decisions as parents, this one is influenced by how we grew up. As a child, I was forced to play piano and take ballet, with disastrous results: I grew to hate both. I don’t want to do that to my kids. I don’t want them to hate anything. But neither do I want them to think quitting is OK.
Take a cue from your own childhood
Natasha Greensite, a mother of three in Vancouver, was brought up with lots of choices and allowed to quit things when she wanted. She says she didn’t grow up to be a quitter. Her husband, Joel, on the other hand, was forced to follow through with activities, and he says that taught him to be resolute and resilient. So when their six-year-old daughter, Emma, wanted to quit swimming lessons, they had different opinions on how to handle it.
Week after week, they endured what Natasha calls her daughter’s “hysteria” before every lesson. Once in the pool, she wouldn’t stop crying. Greensite tried bribing her with treats, toys and money. Nothing worked. Her husband was reluctant to let Emma quit but, in the end, Natasha couldn’t tolerate the crying and the unhappiness that was seeping into their lives outside of swim lessons, and they agreed to let her stop. “I personally feel quitting is OK, as long as we talk about it and discuss the reasons why,” she says. “I think we involve kids too much in the decision making when they’re still too young. At this age, I think it’s up to the parents to decide whether to let a child quit an activity.”
Keep it in perspective
Meagan Smith, a registered psychologist in North Vancouver who works with kids and their families, thinks my concerns about Jaza turning into a lifelong quitter are probably overblown. “Your daughter is still pretty young and maybe she made a hasty decision.” If Jaza were older, says Smith, she’d have to take more responsibility for her choices, and the lesson would be more important. But in this situation, there’s no blanket answer. “You have to find what’s best for your kid. She won’t learn to be a quitter from this one instance. If it’s a constant battle and it’s unpleasant and no fun, what’s the positive?”
Good question — and I have yet to come up with an answer. Anne Marie Corrigan, however, found her solution. When her oldest was seven, the Vancouver mother forced him to continue with his piano lessons despite his protests and refusals to practise. She had to drag him to his lessons and it wore her down. But the family is musical, and Corrigan felt that David would eventually regret giving up the piano.
Eventually, she offered to buy David a guitar and allowed him to study both instruments for two years. After that, if he still loathed piano, he could quit. The strategy worked. Recently, he told his mother that since he’s taken up guitar, he’s found a new love for playing the piano. He now gravitates toward it without any prompting. Corrigan believes the change was partly due to maturity: she argues that when children are younger than eight or nine, it’s harder for them to figure out what they’ll value in the future.
Smith agrees that with younger children, parents need to decide for them. “You can make decisions they don’t like, and you know it’s for the best.” If you feel strongly that your child should learn to swim for safety reasons, or if it’s important for your kids to learn the language of your family’s heritage, it’s OK to dig in your heels. “But as they get older, you have to shift over more of that responsibility to them.”
Ask, don’t tell
Mirit Murad, a parent coach in Vancouver, doesn’t think parents should force kids into activities they don’t enjoy. She has just gone through the same soccer adventure with her own six-year-old. She believes I should not impose my decision, but include Jaza in the conversation so we can come up with a solution together. “If you just tell a child what to do, it’s not respectful and they will resist,” she says. “If you involve them, they will feel listened to and understood.”
That conversation will depend on the age and cognitive ability of the child, she says, but the underlying principles are the same. First, decide what you want your child to learn from this experience — in my case, I want my daughter to learn to follow through on a commitment. The next step is inviting her to come up with creative solutions.
Murad asks me to go back to the reasons my daughter gave for not liking soccer in the first place: the pushy girls and the games they play at practice. She commends me for having asked my daughter about this, but points out that I have not acted on the information. By just forcing her to continue to play, I’m not helping her solve the problem.
Because Jaza is only six, Murad suggests I offer a list of options, such as talking to the coaches about doing different games, and asking them to review the rules with the other girls so Jaza doesn’t get bulldozed around the field. Then I need to present these ideas to Jaza to see if she has any other suggestions. (Older children can often come up with solutions themselves, even without prompting.) If she is still unhappy, Murad suggests asking her what she thinks we should do. Again, I can propose options, such as sticking it out for two more weeks, switching to another team, or offering her classes in something more appealing if she’ll continue with soccer.
If nothing works and she still wants to quit, Murad says I should let her. If she were playing on a rep team, where she’d be letting down her teammates by quitting, that would be one thing. But there’s no virtue in forcing kids to do a sport they don’t like when fun is supposed to be the point.
After trying all these conversations and presenting different options, Murad says, I may conclude that soccer is not a good game for my daughter. “Tell her that the next time you choose an activity, you both need to consider all the factors in order to make a good decision. That’s the lesson, and it will take any sense of failure or quitting off the table.”
Whose issue is it?
Smith offers another piece of wisdom. “The best thing you can do for your kid is to have a realistic picture of what they’re good at. Don’t try to squeeze them into the mould you want them to fit into. Some parents have a hard time with that.”
She caught me. I had expectations I didn’t acknowledge or didn’t want to admit. I never played team sports as a child — I never even liked team sports. I wanted my daughter to have something I never had: a community outside of school, another group of friends to turn to in tough times, an outlet for all her physical energy, a reason to keep her body healthy. Now I realize I need to adapt to my daughter’s experience and see it as a strength, not a failure.
In the end, I let Jaza quit. I don’t want her to be reluctant to experiment with new activities because she’s worried that I will force her to continue if she hates them. I want to help her turn difficult decisions into opportunities to learn about herself and others. And ultimately, from it all, I want my daughter to know she is deeply loved. That is, after all, more important than soccer.