Should you let your kids quit extracurricular activities?

Tiger Mom or Dolphin Parent? Two parents and their opinions on letting children quit extracurricular activities.

Photo: Miki Sato
Photo: Miki Sato

“Yes”
Johanna Braden, mom of three

Teamwork. Perseverance. The joy of accomplishment. That thrill from moving your body in tandem with others. Who doesn’t want this for their kids? My son was going to learn all these lessons early and well.

And yet there he was, for the millionth Saturday in a row, standing stone-faced on the soccer field, refusing to move even when the ball was at his feet and other kids were screaming at him. “You can make me come here,” he said, “but you can’t make me try.”

“I can too make you try!” I thought. “I can take away your books, your toys, your special cuddle time at night. I can shut down your world until your stubborn spirit is broken! This is not a family of quitters!”

I didn’t say this. Instead, I took a deep breath. Then another. I was basically hyperventilating when I decided there is a difference between quitting and choosing your battles. Successful, happy people know when to let go and move on.

Other than swimming lessons, I’ve made peace with the idea that my son can quit activities he doesn’t like. On bad days I think I should be firmer: We spent money! We invested our time! Other kids are getting ahead! But when I took a hardline stance against quitting activities, our kid balked at starting activities. When we let quitting be an option, he felt cheerier about giving new things a try. Once the pressure was lowered, he enjoyed sampling different hobbies.

My son is still not much of a joiner, and perhaps that’s my fault. Maybe if I had forced him back onto that field years ago, he’d now be a jolly team player who thrives on hard physical work and sees every loss as an opportunity.

But my kid finishes every book he starts. He perseveres to solve his Rubik’s cube. Lego kits have taught him the joy of accomplishment and hard work. Family dance parties leave him sweaty and exhilarated. And navigating through the power struggles of a modern family is its own special form of teamwork.

“No”
Lisa Murphy, mom of two

It’s become a familiar chorus when my husband or I mention an upcoming piano lesson, baseball game or gymnastics session. “I’m too tired!” one cries (usually accompanied by an Oscar-worthy chair slump). “The coach is too tough!” or, “It’s no fun now that Maddy doesn’t go anymore!”

You’d think we were trying to torture them rather than remind them about life-enhancing activities that they chose. I’m no Tiger Mom: I don’t force them into lessons or sports they don’t want to do but probably should. Both kids have stalled at Level 5 swimming, for instance, and I don’t make them turn down playdates to focus exclusively on Kumon, cello and robotics. But if they agree to try piano or soccer for a season, I expect them to follow through.

Consider the time and money we spend to arrange these activities. An example: Our daughter asks to do gymnastics. Late-night web and social media research ensues to find great local classes, typically only available during a career-killing late afternoon slot or a pre-dawn Saturday morning. Daughter agrees to the time. Race across town on a weekday lunch hour to sweltering gym where 93 tense, sweaty parents are taking numbers to register for 20 pricey spaces. Emerge triumphant, space secured. And three weeks later, she’s “too tired” to go?!

There’s also growing evidence to suggest that kids who persevere at activities—and who are taught that skills and talents aren’t just innate but can be grown through training and hard work—are happier and more confident.

No question, if my children felt physically or emotionally unsafe in a class, I would speak to the instructor about solutions and consider taking them out. Kids need to feel heard, see conflict resolution in action and adapt to different teaching styles. But if an activity is healthy yet tiring, the coach is demanding and there are no long-time pals to distract them from learning, then we say stick with it.

A version of this article appeared in our November 2015 issue with the headline “Should kids be allowed to quit activities?” p. 96.

Read more:
Quitting activities: Choose Dolphin Parent over Tiger Mom
Can music make your child smarter?
Pushy parents linked to kids’ anxiety

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