Sign Me Up! I Quit
As the spring season gets underway, activity overload for kids has become the norm. Children are finding themselves adrift amidst a non-stop whirlwind of little league baseball, spring soccer, swim teams and all sorts of lessons. By the time the chocolate Easter bunny begins melting, children find themselves feeling similarly wasted away. Not only do parents witness signs of burnout, but they also increasingly find themselves dealing with protest shouts of, “I QUIT!”
Many kids start activities as young as age four, and eight years later many have completely burned out. By pushing children into organized sports or lessons too soon, parents run the risk of injury, burnout, or turning children off altogether to a hobby.
Seventy percent of kids who sign up each year for youth soccer, baseball, football, hockey, and other competitive sports quit by age 13, never to return to them. The number one reason children cite for quitting? It stopped being fun.
I call it the “Activity Mania” of today’s childhood, and the stress goes hand in hand with it. Children’s busy schedules have spun out of control. Now, we have toddler pre-curricular activities from tumbling and music to swimming and Spanish. By the time a child reaches kindergarten, she may play a sport, dabble in the arts, speak a little Spanish, and feel pressured to add a second dance lesson each week if she wants to compete.
Free time usually has to be penciled into the family calendar, and when a break in the action finally comes, most kids dive in front of the TV or tablet to console themselves in a desperate retreat to the “electronic playground.”
You, as the parents, deal with distraught children who come home complaining about bad coaches, bench-warming frustration, activity overload, and lack of fun. Deciding when to ask a child to stick it out and when to allow him to quit is a difficult issue.
Warning Signs of Stress and Burnout
Look for these signs of overload. If your child dreads going to an activity or practice, this should raise an immediate red flag. Talk with your child about how she’s doing. Does she wish she had more time hanging out around the house or free afternoons to bring a friend home from school? Ask open-ended questions to allow her to vent.
How to Respond
How do you respond when your child announces, “I quit!” two practices into a sport? What do you do when your child declares: “I hate flute and I’m never going back!” Of course, this is often the same activity she begged you to sign her up for in the first place.
You will likely find yourself wondering more than once during the course of your child’s growth years how you should handle such an announcement. Sometimes, it’s worth waiting to see if the complaining is just the result of a bad day, a bad mood, or a bout of exhaustion.
Evaluate whether there are intermediate steps to quitting. Could your child miss one of the two practices a week and still play on the team or switch from an elite team to a recreational one?
Your child’s desire to quit can be frustrating for you as well given all the time, money, and emotional investment you make in her activities. Blowing off flute or ballet after years of lessons no longer becomes a casual decision. Sometimes, you can address your child’s frustration and quickly resolve it, while at other times moving on to something else makes the most sense. You may want your child to stick out the activity because she made a commitment. Your difficult job is to help your child ascertain when quitting makes sense and when it doesn’t.
Encouraging Your Child to Stick with it a While Longer
Quitting teaches your child instant gratification as opposed to working hard at something that has a deeper, lasting satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. It also promotes a philosophy of jumping from one thing to the next the minute something doesn’t make her feel good, which can be an unhealthy pattern if carried into adulthood.
While you should take her feelings seriously, make it a basic family rule that your child should “stick it out” unless her physical or emotional well-being is at stake. Your child must then put thought into the signup process, understanding that she must honor her commitments, especially to a team who is depending on her. Take into consideration your child’s age. If your elementary school child is trying out team sports for the first time, the experience will be new to her. However, as your child gets older, you should be more adamant about her seeing a commitment through, except under extreme circumstances.
When Your Talented Child Wants to Quit
You may feel particularly angry, disappointed, and frustrated if your child has exceptional talents in a particular activity and still wants to walk away. Clearly, she has the skills, but perhaps feels too much pressure.
Listen to what your child says and how she feels, and teach her to make well thought-out decisions. This process will give her the invaluable gift of life skills.
Times When Calling It Quits Makes Sense
Although it is important to encourage your child’s interests, don’t force a passion. In letting your child make her own decisions, you are acknowledging that passions sometimes wane. Give your child the right to quit when she has taken it as far as she wants.
If your child is miserable, she may well be justified in washing her hands of a particular endeavor. In fact, she may be following a strong intuition that the situation is wrong for her. Her health and emotional well-being should come first and foremost, and she may be the best judge of this.
If you’ve tried everything and your child still moans and groans before every lesson or practice, then it’s time to back off. Let her stop the activity so her frustration doesn’t become generalized to hating all activities.
The Process of Quitting Itself
Once the final decision has been made, support your child’s choice. Tell your child, “Okay, we support you.” At this point, wholeheartedly supporting your child’s decisions is important for her feelings of self-worth.
Talk about quitting in terms of taking a hiatus. Tell your child, “It sounds like you need a break.” Emphasize that this is not a permanent decision. Leave your child the option to take the activity up again later.
Take your child with you to tell her coach/teacher that she has decided to leave the activity and her reasons, which will provide your child with closure.
Why Unstructured Play is So Important
While your child might have a number of after-school activities, she also needs time to relax at home. Your child needs some downtime to play with friends and siblings, and to participate in family activities. She may be interested in music, dance, gymnastics, or another sport, but she doesn’t need to do all of them at the same time.
Advocate a little boredom for your child. Childhood is for exploring and discovery, so free time provides your child with those opportunities to follow whatever captures her interest in the moment. Play is not a matter of doing something for positive feedback or measurable achievement, but for the sheer joy of being immersed in fun.
Downtime is not wasted time. Our culture sends parents a message that unstructured leisure is a waste of time. Play is not a frivolous activity, and it actually can be key in developing character and intelligence. ■