Kristen Thomen can’t seem to sit still.
The 15-year-old takes advanced placement classes at Riverdale Baptist School and has a 4.1 grade-point average. She spends her afternoons running track, playing tennis, working on the yearbook and acting in the spring musical.
When school’s out, Kristen does voice-overs for commercials or sketches pictures that have appeared in the “Sonic Colors” video game. On Sunday mornings, she’s either singing in the church youth choir or performing with the liturgical dance ministry.
Kristen knows that her schedule is packed. Her parents tried to get her to slow down after it became apparent to them that their daughter’s multiple pursuits were taking a toll on her body and mind. Still, Kristen continued to play through the pain because she said she didn’t want to give up anything.
It’s a dilemma faced by many parents: When is it time for a child to quit an activity? When the activity becomes too expensive or time-consuming for the parent even when the child wants to continue? When the child becomes overwhelmed or bored? Should parents keep pushing when the kid gives up too easily?
“The only time to quit an activity is when you are unhappy doing it,” says Sean P. Burke, a guidance counselor at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school in Fairfax County.
Even the highest achieving students at the high-performing school need to take a break from an activity for another reason, Burke said: “If your grades are suffering to the point you need the extra time to study.”
Bethany Goodwin, a school counselor for Charles County Public Schools, said a student is the best judge of when it’s time to throw in the towel.
“Successful balance of academic demands, part-time jobs, and involvement in multiple activities tends to vary from student to student in regard to their temperament and ability to organize,” said Goodwin, who has faced the dilemma herself as a mother of four children. “Some students manage and function quite well with a full schedule and rigorous classes, and other students struggle.”
Goodwin said she believes it is better for children to get involved than to sit on the sidelines. “Overall, students tend to benefit from involvement in extracurricular activities,” she said. “The opportunities to explore their interests and talents generally lead to higher school achievement, school attendance, and greater success with meeting college admissions and their personal goals after graduation from high school.”
Like many parents, I have wrestled with the quitting time dilemma. My basement is littered with the remnants of abandoned activities: soccer balls, tennis rackets, karate belts, dance costumes, animated drawings, and an acoustic guitar. These objects of high hopes are now dust collectors. My husband and I resolved the matter by letting our kids off the hook when we felt like we were dragging them against their will to a class, camp, practice or game. Looking back, we could have saved all of the money we spent on basketball and ballet and put it all toward activities that would have boosted their eventual career choices: filmmaking and journalism.
But who knew? And that’s the point.
Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith surely spent millions to cast their daughter, Willow, in the remake of the children’s film classic “Annie,” only to have their daughter tell them she wanted time out to “just be 12.” She has been replaced in the title role by Oscar-nominated actress Quvenzhane Wallis.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recalled in her memoir, “Extraordinary, Ordinary People,” the time when she told her mother she wanted to quit the piano, which she had been playing since she was 3.
“You’re not old enough or good enough to make that decision,” Angelena Rice replied. “When you are, you can quit.” Years later, as a junior in college, it became clear that the future diplomat was not destined for the concert stage. “Now you are old enough and good enough,” Angelena Rice said, agreeing with her daughter’s decision. “For the rest of your life, the piano will always be there for you.”
Donna Barrett, 56, of Cheltenham, recalls how she had to dish out some tough love several years ago when her kids’ activities left her careening around town in a minivan low on gas and piled high with soccer, swimming and track gear.
At the time, Barrett’s 10-year-old twin boys were playing soccer and swimming. Her daughters, 8 and 6 years old, were in track. And her 3-year-old son did whatever the big kids were doing.
“I wanted to keep them active during the summer, but I wasn’t willing to play chauffeur to five kids under 11 years old,” Barrett said. “My husband and I made the decision that they would all do the same thing or do nothing.”
Track and field became the family sport, and now Barrett coaches her grandchildren on a local track team.
Barrett advises parents to take their child’s well-being into consideration when solving the quitting-time dilemma. “It doesn’t hurt to allow them to take a break,” she said. “When they want to take a break, they are trying to tell you something.”
But Thomen says why slow down when there’s the summer swim team, 4-H camp counselor-in-training job, Miss Maryland pageant and the cages that need to be cleaned at the nearby pet superstore?
The 10th-grader only took time off when she tore a thigh muscle while swimming year-round with Central Chesapeake Swimming.
“There has never been a time when she said she felt overwhelmed, but her body started shutting down,” recalled Kristen’s mother, Leniece Thomen, 53. “She was getting headaches. We had to stop something. She said, ‘Mom, I’m tired.’ I said, ‘Which one do you want to X out?”
Even after dropping year-round swimming, Kristen still keeps a busy schedule. Her mother said that Kristen’s myriad activities are an expression of her desire to help others. “Kristen has a compassion for humanity,” Leniece Thomen said, “and she wants to do her part.”
Haynes is a freelance writer.