“I want to quit.”
The first time a parent hears a child utter these four words, they can stir existential dread. Whatever the activity involved — a sport, a musical instrument, a hobby — the parent’s mind often frets: Is my child lazy? How will he ever develop a work ethic? How will she ever keep a job?
Upon further reflection, however, most of us can remember when we quit an activity in our childhood. Did such an act doom us to unemployability? Probably not. But our culture has made “quit” a four-letter word we’d rather not hear from our children. I admit that when my daughters were quite young, I believed in the “quitters never win” adage. And certainly quitting is sometimes the wrong solution for an unhappy child. But many years, activities and parenting books later, the subject of quitting has become more nuanced.
For example, David Epstein’s recent book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, sheds light on the decisions parents face when a child wants to quit an activity. In the chapter “The Trouble with Too Much Grit,” Epstein warns against parents putting too much pressure on a child to stick with an activity if it is not a good fit. Epstein quotes researcher Seth Godin who encourages everyone to “stay attuned to whether switching [activities] is simply a failure of perseverance, or astute recognition that better matches are available.”
But how can parents navigate the ethics of quit vs. fit when it comes to children? Here are four steps that might help.
1) Prevent a high-stakes quitting situation
One way to avoid a tense standoff with a child is to lower the stakes of quitting in the first place. For example, try to start a new activity in small stages. If children express an interest in a sport or activity, start with a weekend camp instead of a months-long commitment. If they express an interest in playing a musical instrument, start with a keyboard or rented instrument. In these cases, the lower time and money commitments take pressure off the quitting situation if it arises. It also makes the goal of “finishing what you started” easier for a child to achieve.
Some activities provide early “off ramps” or trial periods for children who are interested but not sure about their extended passion. One of my daughter’s dance studios enabled dancers to take a class for a few months. At that point, they could discontinue the class or commit to six more months and a recital performance. My daughter just finished her 11th year at the studio, but that safety valve was helpful during the first year.
2) Probe the reasons for giving up at a quiet time
Granted, if there’s a large problem, like a coach’s abuse or a teammate’s bullying, then intervention may be necessary. But if a child is simply frustrated with an activity, it is more effective to ask them why when they are calm and not in the heat of the moment.
In that calmer time, encourage the child to express their reasons. Lack of improvement? Boredom? Lack of challenge? Too much challenge? Fear of mistakes? Burnout? While listening, resist the urge to lecture them about grit.
3) Help formulate a plan of action
Once the reasons for wanting to quit are clear, collaborate with your child to brainstorm possible solutions. Maybe they could talk with the coach and/or teammates to improve the situation. If so, help them rehearse what they’ll say and why. To help develop their own “voice,” maybe they could make a presentation to the family about their plan.
If it seems like quitting is, in fact, the best option, discuss how that will take place. Will the child be expected to tell the coach/teammates? If so, help them rehearse how, when, and where that would happen.
4) Once they quit, learn from it and move forward
If your child ends up quitting an activity in favor of a better fit, it’s important not to second-guess them. Perhaps redescribe “quitting” as simply being pragmatic, thoughtful, and, in the long run, wise. As long as quitting does not become a pattern, a child could be commended for reprioritizing his or her life, which also frees time for other interests. As David Epstein notes, Seth Godin “argued that ‘winners’ quit fast and often when they detect that a plan is not the best fit, and do not feel bad about it.”
Ultimately, you know your children and their character best. If you can rule out unhealthy reasons for their desire to quit an activity, the words “I want to quit” need not be so feared. In fact, Epstein argues that parents should allow children to be “dabblers” if that is what they seem to want. His research shows that among elite adult athletes, for example, “broad early experiences and delayed specialization is the norm” for their childhood. Hence, encourage children to be “scientists” of themselves, exploring their interests and gaining range in a hyper-specialized world. Once children find a good fit, grit often takes care of itself.