I Quit.

Everyone needs to learn to quit. Really, they do. Whether it’s a bad job or a bad relationship, at some point in life you need the skills and the experience to say: “I’m out of here.” Of course, the tricky issue is determining the right time for your child to throw in the towel, and how to help them learn from it. Think of extra-curricular games and lessons as an opportunity for them to hit the quit button–it’s a low-cost way to learn a necessary life lesson. Hey, they can’t quit the family and they can’t quit school.                   

What’s Too Much?

Kids don’t have the experience to know that new things are often frustrating, confusing, even disappointing. Hard work and perseverance often lead to great pleasure and pay out… but how can a five-year-old, seven-year-old, ten-year-old know that? It’s your job to coach and encourage them through the process of learning a new skill. (That’s what you’re doing when you’re trying new things together.) It’s also your job to help them know when it’s okay to give it up, and to teach them to evaluate the pros and cons of such a decision.

Ideally, of course, we’d like to see a kid finish out on a commitment: the sport season, the set of lessons, the camp session. But, as adults, we also know that there are many things that aren’t worth slogging through the s*it for: a horrendous teacher, bullies in a group, inconsolable frustration. Sometimes a kid just isn’t ready. Whether due to his or her make-up, family circumstance, illness, stress…sometimes all the activities combined are just too much.
Start by helping them to sort out why they want to quit. Is it because they didn’t get the part they wanted (Hamlet? Quarterback? Prima ballerina)? Yes, that’s disappointing, but that’s life. Are they frustrated trying to learn a new skill (all thumbs on the piano, two left feet at soccer, tongue-tied on stage)? Encourage them to complete the season, group of lessons, or performance, and to look at it as a learning experience.

If their unhappiness is caused by more than not being the star of the show or not being a natural athlete or performer–say they are not getting playing time or are left out of the group or are being made fun of–then it’s your job to help them. Start by facilitating a conversation with them and the coach or teacher.

In the end, you’re the mom. If there’s just too much psychic or physical pain involved (even if you think they’re being overly sensitive—remember you’re not them and their feelings are real to them), by all means help them find a graceful way out. Suggest that this isn’t the year for soccer, violin, volley ball, but maybe they’d like to try it again another time. If your child is enrolled at a private facility and you’ve paid for lessons, negotiate a partial refund. If you believe that sub-standard adult supervision is the reason for their leaving, have a conversation with the director or owner of the facility and advocate for a full refund on that count. If you are participating through a town league or recreation program where coaches are volunteers, fold your tent and chalk it up to the cost of life.
Offer your kids praise. Let them know how proud you are of them for understanding themselves well enough to know their limits and what they like and don’t like. Encourage them to trying something new.

Or Not?
One of our kids spent a session at an overnight camp sending home the most original, artful, and piteous letters on why she needed to be rescued post haste. Our favorite was the letter she thought would most tug at her foodie parents’ hearts: the food was horrible, inedible, frightening! For God’s sake, she wrote, they served iceberg lettuce! (Yes, the iceberg lettuce girl.) We flirted with the idea of rescuing her, but knew her to be an adaptive kid and so let her stay and bemoan the lettuce. She endured the three weeks. We brought her home and she skipped overnight camp for a few years. (She had not been ready–the iceberg lettuce was a red herring.) Then, at age 13, she wanted to give it another try. We investigated and found a camp that was opening that summer, which meant that all the campers would be new. A parent needs to be sensitive to the situation they’re putting their child into, and a camp with returning campers in bonded bunks would not be ideal for a thirteen-year-old girl. She tried again. She had fun, learned new skills, and spent two summers as an outdoorsy gal. No letters home about lettuce (or arugula, for that matter). The point: she endured and persevered and quit and ended up trying again. (Who knew she’d package up all our points in one thrifty story?)

Years later, she did quit: nature, that is. She now lives in a big city, works in publishing (still a persuasive writer), and has no residual interest in the natural world.

You Quit (or, should).
Sports, theater, music lessons, and art classes are add-ons in your already complicated life. They require paying, planning, driving, car-pooling–not to mention time spent watching, cheering, encouraging, or nagging behind the scenes (did you practice the piano for thirty minutes today, Aiden, really? ) Often, while trying to do what is best for our kids, we take on more than we can handle. Like a boiling pot with a too-tight lid, the steam comes out the sides. Or we get a little over-cooked and can’t see clearly what is really going on. Sometimes you just need to say, no. You are allowed to keep some unstructured, unscheduled time in your life!

What a Smart Mom Should Know.
Parents can get a little confused about what their little ones are really learning in extracurriculars. We all have the nasty habit of getting stuck in the task itself and failing to see beyond the direct skill sets being taught. Your child is doing many other things besides learning how to hit the ball, strum the banjo, and dance the polka. They are experiencing different styles of teaching; other ways of learning; and meeting different groups of children beyond the local school or neighborhood. (They might even be having fun.)
One year one of our kids signed up to play a fall team sport, and every afternoon when we arrived to pick her up or watch the games she was sitting on the sideline. When we asked why, the reasons varied: she was tired, she didn’t feel like it, she had a crimp in her side. In retrospect, we behaved badly (not the only time). We were too tired, we didn’t feel like driving to get her, we had a crimp in our parenting brain. One day on the way home we read her the riot act: Don’t play this sport again if you aren’t going to play the sport!
What we missed was that no one (besides us) cared that she wasn’t running up and down the field. Well, maybe the coaches looked at her slightly cross-eyed (which bothered us–not her), but she was doing serious socializing on the sidelines, and we didn’t value it. In our task driven frenzy we lost sight of the fact she was playing with her friends and happy in ways that transcended kicking the ball or winning the game.

The lesson learned?

A smart mom never loses sight of what her kids really need: unconditional love, safe boundaries and room to play. Then she gets the hell out of the way and gives them space to grow.

From the book Smart Mama, Smart Money: Raising Healthy Happy Kids Without Breaking the Bank  NAL/Penguin