Sam Kennie loved water polo, until he suddenly didn’t. The nine-year-old decided he wanted to play the sport after watching it during the 2012 Summer Olympics, says his mom, Jordan Kennie. “He was super keen.” So she signed up her son with what she describes as a “fantastic” water polo program. For four months, twice a week, they drove the hour each way from their home in Perth, Ont., to Ottawa to take Sam to the pool.
“He was really good at it,” recalls Kennie. “He was getting a lot of positive reinforcement from the coaches. They wanted him to play on a more competitive team. Sam always wanted to go. And then all of a sudden, he started kind of not wanting to go.”
“Kind of not wanting to go” escalated quickly. Sam started to have trouble sleeping. He became increasingly anxious. “And then he had a full-on panic attack before going for a sleepover one night,” says his mom. “If we were late for anything he would freak out and cry a lot. He had a breakdown at water polo: He had to get out of the pool and leave halfway through the session.”
Sam wanted to quit. But his parents hesitated. “We’d always had a fairly strict ‘no quitting’ policy,” says Kennie. “So we tried to calm him down, telling him to just keep going and it would be fine. There were only two months left in the season. But he just didn’t want to go. It got to the point where we consulted a psychologist about anxiety disorders.”
Read more: Anxiety disorders in children >
Sam’s case is an extreme example, but at its heart is an issue most parents have had to deal with at some point or another: quitting. Maybe it’s your five-year-old (OK, I admit it: my five-year-old) who begs you to sign him up for soccer, but then refuses to actually play at game time and instead wrestles with his friends on the sidelines. Maybe it’s your second-grade piano-lesson refusenik or your preteen dance-class dropout. Whatever the activity, it can be frustrating for parents—who have, often as not, spent time and money getting our kids to lessons—when our offspring won’t stick with the program.
And then there are the deeper issues: What are the implications of letting your kid quit? I’ve watched my younger son—yes, the one on the soccer team sidelines—walk out of gymnastics, Kindermusik, art classes and swimming lessons. He seems well adjusted, but I’ve worried that, each time we let him quit, we’re somehow reinforcing the message that it’s OK to be, well, a quitter. As Kennie puts it, “You do sit there and wonder, ‘If I let him quit this, am I opening the floodgates and he’s going to live in my basement for the rest of his life?’”
Thankfully, probably not. A new book out recently by Vancouver psychiatrist Shimi K. Kang, called The Dolphin Way, urges parents to abandon the striving, overscheduled lifestyle of Tiger Moms and adopt a more balanced, natural, approach. Humans—like dolphins, Kang argues—are social beings meant to live in family and community “pods.” Too often, though, we’ve replaced those pods—groups of kids playing together on the neighbourhood block, cousins tumbling through grandma’s house while their parents cook and share childcare duties together—with structured activities where the minivan becomes the kitchen table. “Forty percent of Canadian kids are sleep-deprived because of busy schedules,” says Kang, citing research from the Canadian Sleep Society. Even one less hour of sleep for six nights can lead to attention problems and impact cognitive performance. If more of us embraced dolphin-like communities, she says, “we’d see less quitting, because we’d see fewer structured activities, but more free play and spontaneous activity. Kids wouldn’t be so bored, and parents wouldn’t be so overwhelmed.”
Martin Camiré, a professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in sport psychology and positive youth development, agrees with Kang’s philosophy to some extent, especially when it comes to extracurriculars. In fact, says Camiré, what some parents—myself included—might interpret as a child’s lack of stick-to-it-iveness is actually developmentally appropriate. It may even be beneficial.
“We’re brought up in North America with this idea that we need to persevere, see things through,” he says. “But if you’re four, five, six years old, you haven’t really developed that working-person mentality. It’s still pretty abstract.”
Research shows that children younger than age 12 should participate in a bunch of different activities, whether that’s sports, academic clubs, arts or music, says Camiré: “These are called the ‘sampling years,’” he says, quoting a term used by his fellow researchers. "Kids sample different sports and activities, even though they might partake more seriously in one activity. That’s how they can learn what they like and develop different skills.”
Focusing on “quitting” rather than “sampling,” says Camiré, can have repercussions down the line. “Say a kid goes to basketball for four or five sessions and they don’t like it anymore and don’t want to go. And the parent says, ‘Well you can’t just quit.’ That puts negative connotations on the sporting experience. You can end up with kids in activities they don’t enjoy, but who are afraid to say that to their parents. They’ll think, ‘I can’t quit. My parents are not going to be happy.’”
Read more: 6 ways to raise a happy child >
“If we overly stigmatize quitting,” says Kang, who is also the medical director for Child and Youth Mental Health community programs in Vancouver, “we prevent kids from trying new things, which is terrible for them, for society, for innovation, for creativity. Trial and error is vitally important, and trial and error inherently involves quitting.”
With her patients—and with her own three children—Kang focuses on activities kids can try out versus “committed” activities. The Harvard-trained psychiatrist, who participated in precisely zero extracurricular activities as a child, negotiates the terms of her kids’ activities on a case-by-case basis. “Parents can say, ‘I’d like you to try it three times before you quit,’ or, ‘If we pay for something, we’ve committed to it, so we’re going to finish that number of sessions. If you don’t want to continue on after that, that’s OK.’ Is that quitting, or is that a good trial? We say that’s a good trial.”
Kang also argues that parents today may lean too hard on the “three months’ worth of paid lessons” model of sampling. Just because a child expresses an interest in archery, or bowling, or ballet, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she needs to sign up for a season’s worth of structured classes in the subject. Instead of rushing to pay for lessons, check out the local bowling alley for a couple of hours, or find a friend in the neighbourhood with an archery set-up in the backyard. I discovered this the hard way with my younger son: While he wasn’t keen about his art classes (“They always tell me what I’m supposed to make, and I want to make what I want to make!”), he was more than thrilled to spend an afternoon messing with clay and glazes with a friend of mine who’s a local potter.
Read more: Are you overscheduling your child? >
Both experts agree that kids’ chances of sticking with—and benefiting from—an activity are enhanced if the motivation comes from the child rather than from the parents.
Orli Kendall,* for example, was only two years old when she started asking repeatedly for violin lessons. She became enthralled with the instrument during a few kid-oriented symphony concerts. “She’d stand right in front of the musicians and pretend to conduct,” says her mom, Rebecca Greenberg.
Greenberg remembers her toddler marching up to an employee in a music store and asking to hold a violin. “To my horror, they gave one to her. My vision was that she was going to drop it and it was going to shatter and we were going to have to buy it. But she just stood there holding it on her shoulder with this big grin on her face.”
By the time she was three, Orli’s parents signed her up for lessons. But it became apparent pretty quickly that learning the violin was going to be, at times, at least as maddening as it would be joyful. Especially in the first couple of years, Greenberg recalls a lot of tantrums and tears (sometimes her own, sometimes her daughter’s) around violin lessons and practice. “There were definitely times when she said she wanted to quit, and there were times when I just wanted to walk away.”
Read more: The perfect age to start music lessons >
Now seven, Orli is well over her initial frustrations with the violin. She has private lessons and plays with a group ensemble weekly, and practises every day before school for 20-odd minutes. She started playing competitively a year ago, and enjoys recitals, but has so far turned down the option of taking Royal Conservatory exams, which is fine with her parents.
And while Greenberg is happy that they stuck it out, she still feels conflicted about whether she was being a supportive parent or a pushy one. How do you tell the difference?
Look to your child, says Camiré. Even older kids may not have the maturity to see the bigger picture when they’re frustrated by the difficulties of learning a new skill. “But if they enjoy the activity once they’ve got through a rough patch, then I think it’s important to persist. On the other hand, if all you see is relief that they’ve satisfied you as a parent, and if they still want to quit, then it might be time to look for another activity.”
That’s what Nancy Hennen, a flute teacher in Brandon, Man., finally did. She signed herself and her younger son, Marc, up for joint violin lessons so they could spend some special time together learning something new. But he simply wasn’t interested in putting in the effort, and each lesson and practice time turned into a battle. “I’m still really mixed about it,” she says of the two years they spent trying. “I still think it’s really important to pursue things. And I’m hoping he goes back to an instrument, but if he does, he has to get there himself.”
Read more: Can music make your child smarter? >
As for Sam, ultimately, his parents made the call to let him give up water polo. “It was tough to let him quit something he was so good at,” says Kennie. “But the minute he stopped, it was like a switch was flipped. He went from being highly anxious, crying at the drop of a hat, back to his normal self: no more panic attacks. It was a good quit—you know?”
*Name has been changed
Read more: Do labels hurt or help parents? >
• Don’t sweat it. If your seven-year-old drops out of drama class, that doesn’t mean she’s setting herself up for a life of mediocrity. Maybe she just doesn’t like acting. And that’s OK.
• Put health first. “Is your child getting enough sleep? Drinking enough water, eating well? Is he moving enough? Does she have time to breathe?” asks psychiatrist and author Shimi Kang, who works with children and youth in Vancouver. It’s hard for kids to blossom in extracurriculars if the basics aren’t covered.
• Let your kid pick the activity. Kids are more likely to stick with something they’ve chosen.
• Balance organized activities with free play. Teams and lessons offer lots of great things, but equally important are the benefits of just letting kids hang out with each other. “Free play is where kids have a lot more liberty in terms of the games they want to play and how they want to play them. It lets them develop creativity and initiative,” says sports psychology researcher Martin Camiré.
• Press “pause” before signing up. You don’t have to commit to a year’s worth of speedskating or art classes just because your kid mentioned it that one time. Why not just visit the rink, or a friend’s studio? See if you can sit in on a trial practice for class. Get some library books or watch a DVD on the subject with your child.
• Look for consistency. Does your child want to quit all the time, or only when faced with a specific challenge? Rather than letting kids quit wholesale, you may be better off supporting them through a temporary difficulty.
• Know your instructor. One of the biggest influences on the success of a child’s organized activity is the adult leaders, says Camiré. “When you register your son or daughter, ask who’s coaching. Are they certified? Have they gone through training?” Talk to other parents about their experiences with that person: You may save yourself and your child some time and heartache if you can avoid a lackluster coach or teacher.
• Focus your family’s values. When Kang’s son quit piano, they talked about how his decision fit with their family philosophy. “I said to him, ‘Look, this isn’t a value I want to teach you. We don’t commit to things and then quit them. On the other hand, I didn’t really consider whether you wanted to play piano. And what I’ve learned is that I have to involve you in decisions we make about your activities.”
• Take a break. Really, if getting to ballet is a struggle each week, step back for a while. If life feels more balanced without the activity, then you’ll know you made the right decision.