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Enough is Enough
Teaching Children the Valuable Skill of Quitting
by Theresa Shea

Teaching children the valuable skill of quitting

For most of my life, the idea of quitting was infused with negativity. My parents taught me that if I started something, I should finish it – heaven forbid that I be known as a “quitter.” Years later, however, I have modified my views on quitting: I now believe it’s an extremely useful skill, especially if learned (and allowed) in childhood. Presenting “quitting” as a skill, rather than a handicap, will, I hope, save my children some time, anguish and guilt as they journey on their own convoluted and self-led paths to adulthood.

Quitting is a highly individual matter. Personally, I’ve quit things for a variety of reasons: I didn’t like the instructor, the activity took more time than I’d anticipated, the time slot ended up being a problem, the cost became prohibitive, the interest had run its natural course or the activity didn’t live up to my expectations. Since becoming a mother, my standards have increased due to time restrictions. When my children were four, two and newborn, for example, I didn’t have a wealth of free time in which I could flirt with my interests. Therefore, anything I did join had to be really good.

Simply put, to quit means to stop doing something, to give up a habit or to leave a locality. People quit jobs, relationships, places, smoking, etc. A full life involves a number of “quits,” yet there’s a host of powerful social forces at work to discourage us from quitting. That it’s so difficult to write positively (or seriously) about quitting illustrates how much our notions of success are dependent on positive outcomes. Yet haven’t we all experienced a great relief at quitting something? So where’s the positive reinforcement about quitting?

Over the years my three children, now aged ten, eight and six, have tried a variety of activities. Most of them they’ve finished, but some they haven’t. Our house rule goes something like this: We do not quit until we’ve showed up at least two or three times. As any parent knows, some children need a bit of coaxing even when they engage in an activity that they’ve chosen, they excel at and they enjoy. I’ve never been a fan of the “immediate” quit, but once, when my son had a particularly dictatorial art teacher, I recognized that immediate action was necessary and we set our sights on the horizon.

Swimming lessons appear to be a breeding ground for quitting. A few years ago as I tucked my eldest son into bed, he dissolved into tears and said he didn’t want to go to swimming lessons anymore. Dashiell had already attended the prerequisite three classes; nevertheless, I didn’t jump in and say, “Okay, son, quit!” Instead, I asked for an explanation. “The class is too hard,” he said, “and the teacher makes us swim too far.” His concerns were valid. Their first day in the pool I’d held my breath when they started to swim lengths, wondering if he was in the wrong class. “Maybe you’re not the only one who’s scared,” I said. I suggested he talk to his teacher. As it turns out, some of the other kids shared his fears; they just hadn’t said anything. The teacher modified the class and my son finished the lessons.

Not so with my daughter’s swimming lessons. When Sadie progressed from wearing a life jacket to swimming in the deep end unassisted, she’d had enough. She didn’t want to talk to the teacher; she didn’t want to even finish the class. She was absolutely done. The lessons had been her idea, she’d attended three and she’d made vast improvements during that time. When her personal safety began to feel threatened, the joy was gone. Swimming lessons are, after all, curriculum in a pool. Sadie learns far better when she sets her own agenda. Her swimming improves more through play than through instruction. I was impressed that she’d attended three classes!

Many of us were brought up with the idea that quitting is negative and a handicap, rather than a useful skill that can save our children time, anguish and guilt as they learn what’s best for them at any given point on their self-led journey to adulthood.

My youngest, meanwhile, at the tender age of five, became a cello drop-out. After a year and a half of lessons, Levi no longer wanted to go. He missed a week due to an illness, then another because of spring break, and some thread was broken that we just couldn’t pick up again. I found myself resorting to bribery just to get him to the bus stop. During his lesson he became increasingly inattentive and bored. Practice time at home dissolved into a comedy routine that left us both frustrated rather than laughing. Levi had watched his older siblings play music for years and, initially, he had happily joined them, but when some shift occurred, I recognized that I needed to make an accommodating shift. His teacher strongly suggested that he continue to attend lessons until the end of the year. Allowing him to quit, she believed, didn’t send the proper message. What if he got used to quitting?

But when I looked into my boy’s eyes I didn’t see a shadowy quitter lurking there. I saw a boy who didn’t give a rip about his bow hold and who just wanted a break. So we quit.

Allowing Levi to quit cello presented another challenge for me. I’d told my life learning kids that the one thing I expected of them was that they play an instrument. Music is their only curriculum. Whenever my kids resisted practice, I trotted out this “rule.” If I allowed one child to quit, what slippery slope was I watering? But then I thought about me. What would I do if I was tired of my music lessons and wanted a break? I would explain the circumstances to my teacher, and I would likely quit (or take a leave). As an adult, I have the fabulous freedom to choose to do what I want, when I want. Isn’t it therefore logical and right that my children enjoy the same freedom?

I’ve tried many things in my four decades of living: I’ve moved many times, I did mountainy activities while living in the Rockies, I rode horses competitively and I took a variety of lessons (aerobics, yoga, conversational French, kayaking, swimming and music). Depending on the instructors and the group involved, I enjoyed some and regretted others. To this day, I find that my interests and enthusiasms wax and wane. Likely that’s a natural human cycle that should be recognized and nourished. I’m the kind of person who becomes easily interested in something and usually my passion lasts for a certain amount of time before it lessens.

This past year, for instance, I played second violin in a string quartet. We met every other week and practiced what were, for me, difficult pieces. By far the weakest musician of the lot, I really had to work hard, and I did because I enjoyed the challenge. I experienced some great highs when I played well and I loved the post-rehearsal musical adrenalin.

Nevertheless, I’m not going to play in the quartet next year because it ran its natural course (likely the others are relieved!). I’d like a larger musical social life now, one that enables me to play more spontaneously with others. So next year’s musical adventure will involve an adult fiddling group that meets every second Saturday. I may or may not like it, but I won’t know until I try. What I do know is if it doesn’t meet my musical hopes, I’ll find something else that does. Giving myself the permission to quit what I don’t like is profoundly liberating. It also, however, has the unexpected result at times of keeping me committed. For instance, when something is particularly challenging for me, I often tell myself, “just quit.” Knowing that I can helps me to clarify my interests. Do I really want to quit, or am I simply experiencing the friction or difficulty that comes before advancing to a new level of ability?

My children and I both go into lessons because of some kind of interest. Life learning involves trying a number of things, many of which are not explored further. Are they, then, not valuable experiences if they’re not continued? Of course not. If anything, they help to eliminate possibilities and clarify and guide us to other interests.

This year, my eight-year-old daughter decided, after the registration had already passed, that she, too, wanted to play community soccer. I was slow to commit because of her recent withdrawal from swimming. However, her intensity increased as the days passed; she simply had to play soccer. I found myself giving her the spiel. “You know, Sadie,” I said, “being on a team is different from swimming lessons. When you’re on a team you have to be responsible to your teammates. You can’t just join and then decide not to show up.” I heard these words leaving my mouth and wondered if I’d turned into the cello teacher. Did I even believe what I’d just said or was I simply parroting mainstream conformist values by rote?

Clearly, there are some powerful social forces at work that discourage quitting. But why couldn’t she quit if she didn’t like it? The team wouldn’t collapse without her. How would she know if she liked it if she didn’t try? I stood outside of myself and willed my lips to stop moving.

I have been surprised by my children on many occasions, and I hope this will continue. Truth be told, I didn’t think my daughter would last for the six week soccer season. I expected her initial enthusiasm would wane the first time she was tripped or kicked, but I’m happy to report that I was wrong. Having two brothers likely helped her when the game got a bit physical, as did her keen sense of justice. “Don’t push!” she told a boy on the opposing team when he body-checked her to get the ball. Game after game she not only showed up, but she showed up to play and I was her number one fan. Her first team experience was a good one, and already she looks forward to playing again next year.

In short, I try not to hold quitting against my children. Just as I’m easy on myself when I quit something, I’m equally kind to them. I don’t want to put too many “rules” on my children’s participation in things, thus paralyzing their ability to choose new experiences. When I was 19 and quit my government job in the city to go and work at a ski hill in Jasper, Alberta, many (my mother included) thought me foolish. Why would I leave a secure job that paid well and offered a pension? Because I was 19! What I remember most, however, was the number of people who, when they learned of my plans, said, wistfully, “I wish I could do that.”

I realize that not everybody’s life circumstances enable them to pick up and relocate on a whim. Nevertheless, we all have moments in our lives when quitting is the healthy and right thing to do. When it comes to my children, two things usually challenge my ability to allow them to quit: 1) financial considerations and 2) concerns about what people will think. As for the money, well, even though my husband and I unschool on a shoestring budget, I’d far rather forfeit some cash than force my children to continue in something that makes them miserable. Usually I ask myself what my freedom is worth and then I apply it to my kids. I’ll happily bail them out of situations if they request it. If I’m lucky, there’s a partial refund that can accompany the child who leaves an activity early; other times, however, there’s a complete financial loss.

If I feel particularly uncertain about a chosen activity, I try to find places that offer trial or introductory lessons to give my kids the chance to gauge their true interest. Last summer, my boys each chose to attend a hockey camp instead of a soccer camp. The cost for the camps was significantly higher and we had to invest in full hockey equipment. Levi loved it. Even if I had wanted him to quit I’d have had no success. Clearly, allowing him to quit cello has had no effect on his ability to complete things. I don’t think children look at things that way; it’s an adult construct to measure “success” by rate of completion.
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As for what other people will think, well . . . I’ve found that giving my kids the freedom to quit can make other parents irritable. Apparently, I’m setting a bad example. But if their kids enjoy what they’re doing, then they won’t give a rip if my child quits. If, however, their kids are miserable in the activity, then my child quitting provides an enviable option that they’ll whine to their parents about. But here’s what I learned the first time I let one of my kids quit something: My lifelong relationship to my child or children is far more important than any temporary relationship I have with the swimming teacher or music instructor, or even the parents of other children. My primary focus, I believe, should be on the lasting relationships in my life.

Finally, I always have to ask myself whose dream it is, anyway. If I’m too emotionally invested in what my children are doing, then maybe they’re only doing it for me. While I’m happy when they clean their rooms, for me, or pick up their dishes, for me, I don’t want that to be their guiding life principle. I want them to have the courage to try things and, as importantly, I want them to have the courage to quit things. Far too much emphasis is placed on sticking things out and being better for it. Likely the expression “grin and bear it” came from the parent of a disgruntled child engaged in an activity for which he had no passion.

Yes, there’s something immensely powerful and subversive in the act of quitting. Inherent in that humorous one liner, “You can’t fire me, I quit!” is the courage to act first, to be different, to make your own path. Sure, we all have to do things in day-to-day living that we don’t particularly like, and my children know about that too, but, again, if the bad begins to outweigh the good on a routine basis, then maybe the healthy thing is to quit.

As our children grow, they will quit jobs, places and relationships; if they didn’t we’d have great cause to worry! Not all of their decisions will please us or prove to be good ones, but nobody lives a perfect life. So while our children are young, isn’t it wise to offer them some guidance in the area of quitting?

Theresa Shea is a writer, an amateur violinist and a wanna-be dog trainer. She and her husband unschool three children and homeschool their golden retriever puppy in Edmonton, Alberta. This is Theresa’s last article for Natural Life as she’s going to quit writing for us (just kidding).  

 

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