What happens when they want to quit? (Courtesy of the author)

The first time my daughter said she wanted to quit the swim team, at age 8, I felt dumbfounded.

This is a child who has loved the water since her first YMCA swim class at 6 months of age, who cheers whole-heartedly for her teammates and who relishes the rare unfettered access to donuts and Ring Pops that summer swim meets provide. But when I gently shook her awake one Saturday morning, the first sound out of her mouth was a shriek of protest.

My mind raced with the sort of parenting questions that have no easy answers: Do we let her quit a sport that provides her healthy exercise and a fun social outlet? Do we make her take on something else? How would she learn grit and resilience if she just gave up?

I took a deep breath and plopped myself on the side of her bed, as her grievances continued. “I refuse to go to today’s swim meet! I hate it! You can’t make me!”

I tried reflecting listening. I tried reassurance. Clearly, she was nervous about letting her team down, and possibly tired from having to wake at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The high-volume complaints went on.

Ultimately, I told her that my parental responsibility was to take her to the swim meet, but that she would decide whether to participate. “Nobody will throw you into the water,” I promised her, which seemed to break the tension, if not amuse.

She stalked into the car under protest. At the meet, my husband and I stayed out of sight as her first event drew closer, and her coaches deftly talked her into the pool. Her skinny body sliced through the water, goggle-clad eyes trained intently on the finish of the 25-meter freestyle. She emerged triumphant and was engulfed in the arms of her swim team friends. We breathed a sigh of relief.

Then came the following Saturday — another swim meet. Again, we were met with shrill protests. We used the same pass-the-buck technique to get her to the meet, which thankfully was the last of the summer. Clearly, we needed a long-term strategy.

In the D.C. area, parents are often accused of over-scheduling children simply so we can brag about their extracurricular exploits. We’re all seen as building our five-year old’s college resume when we first sign him up for Suzuki violin or T-ball. I try to avoid falling into the competitive parenting trap, although I may weaken at times. Ultimately, I want my daughters to know they are loved and valued for themselves, not for their accomplishments. I try to expose them to a variety of sports, arts, language and other enriching activities, and let them discover what they’re good at and enjoy. I’m under no illusion that my girls will win a college sports scholarship or become virtuoso pianists.

So why don’t I just let them quit? First, there’s my underlying hope that each girl will find “her thing” at which to shine, which will build self-confidence and inoculate her for the emotionally fraught middle school years. And frankly, it’s one of the pure joys of parenting to see your child work hard at an activity and perform well.

Then, there’s the concern that the desire to quit stems from a fear of failure or a preference for sitting on the couch rather than working to develop a skill. Often, my girls begin a new experience with enthusiasm, only to see their passion wane as the weeks go by. In my experience, you can’t really know if you enjoy or are suited for something unless you give it a decent amount of time. Trying something new requires more than a few weeks of one-hour exposures at a time. You sometimes hit a wall – when it becomes tougher to progress – that can be overcome if you just stick with it a few more weeks.

After our experience with swim meet related tantrums, my husband and I decided to take a more proactive approach at the beginning of every activity. We agree with our girls on the length of the commitment they want to undertake. Whether that’s an eight-week soccer season or 10-week dance class, they agree that they’re going to continue the experience to the end, even if they decide it’s not for them. We put this agreement in writing and everyone signs it. We hope this teaches the importance of follow through as well as the reality that activities cost money, which we’re not interested in wasting.

Once this system was in place, the first time our daughter claimed, “I hate this! You made me sign up!” we pulled out the agreement. Argument over. I also threw in some sympathy about how hard it can be when an activity isn’t what you expected, and reassured her that she didn’t need to sign up for the next session.

While our method has worked well for a couple years now, it’s not without hiccups. Once, my youngest daughter ran into a stumbling block with violin. It seemed her whole body was rebelling whenever the time came for practice or a lesson. Reminders of our violin agreement fell on deaf ears. But when I asked what she wanted to do, she suggested stabbing a cardboard box with her ballpoint pen. Seemed simple enough to me! After venting her emotions – and tearing that box to shreds – she willingly picked up the violin.

And of course, I wouldn’t force them to continue an activity if they were in extreme pain or discomfort, whether physical or emotional. When my middle daughter’s six weeks of tennis lessons turned out to be with an instructor who refused to believe she was female because of her short hair (seriously), we let her drop out of the class.

Sometimes, this parenting framework means that my children decline to sign up for another session of an activity that I’ve seen them enjoy and do well. Then, I merely bite my tongue and remind myself that it’s their life to live, and their interests to develop. And I hope a friend will innocently ask, as one did this week, “Are you doing summer swim this summer?” The answer just might be yes, like it was this time (so far), and it will be hers to give.

If the answer is no, I remind myself that I was once a quitter myself. Violin, piano, ballet, flute, gymnastics, modern dance – none lasted more than a handful of years. These activities may not have led to Julliard, but they did cement a lifelong love of music and dance. As a semi-professional singer, I rely on the sight-reading ability that I honed at the piano to learn new songs quickly. And I can walk into any exercise class confident that I’ll at least be able to follow the instructor. If my daughters can broaden their horizons and uncover an enjoyable hobby, I’ll consider that a success.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an independent journalist based in Potomac, Md., who covers work, parenting and education for regional and national publications. She and her husband Brian have three daughters, aged 21, 10, and 8 years old. Find her on Twitter at @KatherineLewis, Facebook and on the Web at Katherine R Lewis.

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