My entire life, I’ve heard “Finish what you start” touted as a critical maxim for kids. After all, sticking with something when it’s difficult or uncomfortable can teach perseverance, discipline and confidence — all important skills to carry with us into adulthood.
But watching through the observation window as my first-grader seemed to drag herself into each ballet position, I started to question how much sense that blanket advice made. Is it really in our kids’ best interest, or even practical, to see every commitment through to its bitter end? What if there are different but equally valuable qualities to be gained by learning to let go of the things that aren’t right for us?
Quitting carries plenty of stigma, even for adults, and figuring out when it’s the best choice for our kids is often nuanced and complex. Outside of extreme circumstances such as bullying or abuse, Eric Bean, a sports psychology consultant, says “quitting is never really a black-and-white issue.” The decision can feel especially fraught when a child wants to leave a sport or activity they’ve shown a talent for or that they’ve previously enjoyed.
Kids may feel ready to end their involvement in an extracurricular activity based on a variety of factors. When they reach that point, “it’s critical for parents to ask questions,” Bean says, and then “be aware of how a child’s answers might be connected or disconnected from their reasons for wanting to participate in the first place.” For example, is the desire to quit an emotional response to a recent experience, such as a rough game or an argument with a teammate?
To prepare for these tough conversations, Bean suggests parents check in with children at the start of each season about their interest level and motivations for involvement. Gathering this knowledge can make it easier to offer meaningful guidance about when to push through certain challenges or consider an exit strategy.
Following this recommendation with our daughter likely would have given us a clearer picture about her feelings before we’d waded so far into a second season of dance. Once we asked the right questions, we learned she was mostly interested in ballet as a way to spend extra time with her school friends. She was lukewarm about the actual dancing. She continued to show up for class, but whatever spark had first been there for her was missing.
As performance choreography began to take shape and fittings for recital costumes approached, we explained she’d reached a decision point. To drop her class any later in the season was going to negatively impact her group. She needed to either step back from dance or commit to giving the class her full energy and attention through the winter showcase. She spent a few days considering it and decided dance wasn’t for her — a choice we supported. The reality is her lack of enthusiasm wasn’t only a waste of time for her or for us, it was also a distraction to her instructor and classmates.
Disinterest can be a strong driving force when it comes to moving on from an activity. Yet Amanda Stemen, a licensed therapist and the founder of Fundamental Growth, notes that in some cases when children want to quit, it can also be because of a mismatch with the format or intensity of practice.
“Extracurriculars have become so competitive,” she says, as kids are being trained from early on as if they’re bound for Juilliard or for careers as professional athletes. As a result, she adds, “so many young people are hating that they have to go to these very structured sports practices.” In these cases, Stemen suggests looking for a less competitive league or a more open-ended program where kids can cultivate genuine joy for an activity on their own terms. Parents may find that switching to a less rigid environment reignites their child’s interest.
Even for older kids with more experience, a team or class can be the wrong fit. If a child who’s been deeply invested in something suddenly finds a season unenjoyable, help them unpack if a harsh coach or a chaotic schedule might be the culprit. No matter what, Stemen says, “Talk to your kids and validate their experiences so they can make the decision themselves about whether something is healthy.”
And when the interest just isn’t there anymore, it’s crucial to be willing to let go. “If a child feels like they’ve lost ownership over their experience, forcing them to play or be involved in something they don’t like is not going to teach them the value of perseverance that many parents are after,” says Bean. Instead, if your kid quits one activity, he suggests encouraging them to pick up another. This ensures they’re still getting the benefits of participation, including teamwork, problem solving or regular exercise.
Ending dance made space for our daughter to fall in love with new pursuits, such as horseback riding and Girl Scouts. She’s dedicated to them for now, but it’s okay if that changes. Yes, the ability to follow through is important, and so is learning that to improve at something, we have to be willing both to practice and to embrace our failures along the way — even when we may feel like quitting.
“Nothing is fun all the time, no matter how much you enjoy it,” Stemen says. But there’s a big difference between working hard toward something you truly care about and toiling over something your heart isn’t in.
As an adult, I’m inundated with messaging about the energizing, door-opening power of saying yes, but what about saying no? The ability to recognize when an activity isn’t an appropriate investment of our time or energy is a fundamental skill, and it’s one that extends beyond youth sports or extracurriculars. As my daughters get older, I want them to feel confident that they can exit a degree path or a job or a relationship that’s no longer meeting their needs. They shouldn’t feel beholden by the fact that simply because they’ve started something, they’re obligated to finish it at any cost.
This doesn’t mean kids should quit thoughtlessly or in a way that leaves teammates high and dry. But we should make room for our kids’ interests and passions to evolve, even if the result is they end up walking away from an activity they — or we — thought would be a big part of their lives. After all, if what we want is for our children to be happy and fulfilled, we have to give them space to decide what that looks like. Quitting means they’re clearing a path to love something else — and that’s a good thing.