McNerney: Should You Let Your Kid Quit?

Neil McNerney, Parenting with Purpose

         Should we let our kids quit an activity/sport/instrument? Or should we have them stick it out in order to learn perseverance and commitment? Since this is a question I am often asked in my work with families, I thought it was time I gave my opinion.

We often worry that if we let our kids quit an activity, they will become quitters. They won’t learn how to persevere, and when things get tough, they will just quit.

I think it is only fair to let you know my opinion: Let them quit. In all likelihood, it will not produce quitters and in fact might help them in the long run. Yes, I know that my opinion on this is not in the mainstream, but I think a part of growing as a generation of parents is consider other perspectives.

There is no convincing evidence that there is a cause and effect connection between letting your kids quit things and difficulty in future life. In fact, some of the recent literature suggests otherwise. Many children will try a new, unfamiliar activity if they know that they can stop. The childhood years is an opportunity to try different things and see what sticks. Some children will try an activity and fall in love, wanting to only focus on one activity. Most children, however, will bounce around quite a bit before settling on something. Some children will never settle on one thing, but at least will have had the chance to dabble in a number of activities.

Take a close look at your motives.

Did a coach, or an instructor, mention the great potential and talent your child possesses? Did anyone mention that with a bit more work your child might make the travel/elite/competition team? These conversations tend to pull on two separate, but powerful motivations as a parent. The first one is guilt. How could I limit my child’s amazing potential to be the next prodigy/Olympian, etc.? If we let them quit, isn’t that as bad as not supporting them?

The other motivation, one that we all have trouble considering, is pride. It feels quite good to hear from another adult how amazing your child is performing. It’s a nice feeling to slip a little mention of your child’s accomplishment into a casual conversation.

What is the cost of perseverance?

There is often a cost to perseverance. Although children might learn a lesson about sticking with something, the costs to the child can also be significant. Many children’s anxieties will increase significantly if they are forced to continue with something that is causing lots of stress. Consider what it must be like to have to show up for something over and over and hate going. This is often a child’s experience when they are forced to continue something that they don’t like.

But he knew he was committing for the whole season…

Most kids, at least until their teens, have very little perception of time. Yes, you might have gotten a commitment from them that they needed to play lacrosse the whole season, but they probably have little concept of how long a season lasts. Most kids have trouble estimating minutes, much less weeks or months. Just because an eight-year-old promises that she will stick with it doesn’t mean that we should believe her. What if she said she would walk, feed, and water the puppy every day? Would we believe her? Of course not! She just wants a puppy and will say anything to get it. It’s the same with sports and activities. They might promise you the world, but the reality of the experience might be very different than their initial thoughts.

The Sunk Cost Theory

You have paid for a year of Tae-Kwon-Do and three months later your daughter says she hates it. Or maybe you have just purchased a high-quality violin right when your son tells you he would rather do Tae-Kwon-Do. This is a common conundrum in parenting. We have bought the lessons, paid the fees, purchased all of the equipment, and are then told they no longer want to be involved.

Welcome to the Sunk Cost Fallacy. In a nutshell, a sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. We often continue to make poor decisions based on sunk costs, in hopes that somehow the payback will occur in the future. We often look at our financial investment in such terms when our kids want to move on to another activity. My recommendation: When first starting a new activity, don’t buy top of the line and definitely buy used. Play It Again Sports was always our first stop for sports equipment, and always our second stop when it was time to turn it in for something else.

In closing, don’t worry so much about your kids quitting. It will not produce a quitter and might actually increase the enjoyment of your kids and your home life, in general.

Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s.

Leave a Reply