First she begged me to let her take violin lessons. Then, just five months later, she was begging me to let her quit. "You can't quit," I told her. "You promised to stick with it for the whole school year. Your violin instructor even made me—your mother—sign a form saying I wouldn't let you quit."
After receiving this lecture, my then 9-year-old daughter, Anna, stopped badgering me. I'm sure she thought there wasn't much hope that I'd change my mind. After all, I'd never let her quit anything before.
But this time I did.
It's a question every parent asks sooner or later: When should we let our kids throw in the towel? And when should we make them stick it out, no matter how much they hate it?
"The best solution," advises Linda Wagener, a child psychologist and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary's School of Psychology, "is to do everything possible to avoid this situation in the first place." We can do just that by following five steps before letting a child sign up for an activity.
Look Before You Leap
1. Let your child try a bit at a time. "Don't commit your child to something she's never done before," says Wagener. "Don't sign her up for a year's worth of dance lessons if she's never had a dance lesson. Give children a chance to try something two or three times and then make a short commitment if possible."
Obviously I violated this rule by letting the school music teacher pressure me into signing a form committing my daughter to a year of violin lessons before she had played the instrument even once.
"It isn't wise to make long-term, intensive commitments to an area where kids haven't had any related experience," cautions Wagener, "because neither you nor the child really knows what that's going to be like."
2. Ask why your child wants to sign up for an activity. Anna wanted to take violin lessons because her best friend, Lauren, was going to take them. Looking back, I can see that this was a terrible reason for letting her sign up.
Parental pressure is just as bad a reason to start an activity. Recently, my husband was trying to talk our son, Sammy, age 11, into playing the guitar. Sammy wasn't interested. Finally he asked his father, "Why are you pushing me so hard, Dad?" My husband paused, then answered honestly, "I guess because I always wanted to play the guitar, and never did." Before you and your child commit to a new activity, make sure he wants to learn to swim, golf or play guitar.
3. Make sure your family isn't already overcommitted. Many families in America are doing too much. Wagener says, "I frequently work with families who have lessons, practices or activities every day after school and most of the weekend." Your child may need down time more than she needs to learn to play an instrument. According to Wagener, "Children of all ages, right up through adolescence, need several days a week to engage in unstructured play-time that isn't programmed from the minute they finish school until bedtime."
In our family, each child can play only one sport per season. Sammy has to choose between football or fall soccer. "If the family is large or the parents work long hours, even one after-school activity per child may be too much," cautions Wagener, "because siblings often accompany each other to their activities." In contrast, families who homeschool can probably do more than one after-school activity because their school day is often shorter.
Increase your level of commitment gradually, watching closely to see if your child shows sustained interest. Wagener says she and her husband allowed their son to play soccer on a traveling team—which requires more practices and longer trips to games—only after he had played several seasons on a regular team and was always eager to play. Her daughter, on the other hand, wasn't always enthusiastic about games and practices so they kept her in the local league.
4. Ask "Is this commitment age-appropriate?" Anna, who is now 16, has ice skated for eight years. I love her coach, but she frequently tells me that Anna needs more lessons and more time on the ice to move ahead. When Anna was younger, her coach's advice made me anxious. I didn't want my daughter to fall behind, so I was constantly increasing the hours we spent at the rink.
One day Anna fell while landing a jump, badly spraining her ankle. It took several months for her to recover. Those months away from the rink were a godsend. "What are we doing?" I asked myself. I had let my fears about Anna missing out drive me into spending more time and money at the rink than I intended. It wasn't good for our family and it certainly wasn't good for Anna. When her ankle healed and she returned to the ice, we scaled way back on the time and money we spent.
The bottom line: Don't let coaches or instructors badger you into getting overly involved. Remember our kids are only kids—not seasoned professionals. Consider carefully the age of your child before you commit to a higher level of involvement.
5. Seek God. In our busy culture we tend to treat prayer as the last resort. "Has it come to that?" my cousin used to tease. We belong to the Lord. Give him your life every day and ask for his wisdom and guidance in knowing what to do and what to let go.
It's important to realize that your child isn't going to be good at everything. Ask yourself, "What are my child's gifts?" There are two schools of thought—let them concentrate solely on their gifts or assume that you don't have to worry about the areas where they are gifted and can instead focus on building other skills.
My daughter Sarah loves to draw. She spends hours every day creating works of art at the kitchen table. I have opted, for now, to let her draw to her heart's content—at the kitchen table. We are forgoing art lessons at this time in order to let her develop some physical skills. Like her older sister, Sarah wants to skate and is now enrolled in her first lessons, once a week.
When the Whining Starts
Let's say you follow these guidelines and let your son sign up for tennis lessons. He has expressed some interest and you think that he might enjoy tennis. You spend time in prayer seeking God about the decision and feel the freedom to continue. Yet six weeks into tennis lessons, he hates them. "All I do is chase the ball," he complains.
At that point the best choice is to make him stick with it. He only has a few weeks to go and he'll probably learn a valuable lesson by following through on something he doesn't enjoy.
"It isn't healthy for parents to bail the child out of every difficult situation in life," warns Wagener. Sometimes kids will want to quit because they find they aren't very good at that sport or activity. Be sympathetic, but make them stay with it. This is a good opportunity for you, as a parent, to express unconditional love?to be kind and supportive even when your child stinks at baseball. Don't force him to sign up again next year, but make him finish the season. "It is a natural consequence of his choice," says Wagener.
There are some important exceptions: If the activity is unwholesome or dangerous, get your kid out. If the after-school French Club shows second graders a steamy movie with French subtitles (yes, this really happened!) get them out. If the basketball coach is angry, hostile, uses foul language or berates your child, talk to the coach and if things don't improve immediately, take your child off the team.
Anna escaped from violin lessons in a way I never expected. One Sunday while I was deep in worship, God spoke to my heart. "Let her quit," he told me. I was shocked. I wasn't thinking about violin lessons right then. I assumed that I was right and by golly she was going to stick to it! "I have not given her that gift," God whispered to my heart. "Let her quit."
As I listened to the Lord, my heart sank. I realized I hadn't allowed her to quit because I thought doing so would make me look bad. I had to swallow my pride and let her quit. Anna let out a sigh of relief as we sent the dreaded violin back to the music shop. But I had to face her irate violin instructor, explaining that I shouldn't have committed to a year of lessons without having my daughter try them first. I had to face the fact that I'd had doubts about the whole thing from the beginning, but at the time I wasn't willing to say no to my daughter or take time to seek God.
It was a hard lesson, but I learned! Now I'm more cautious about signing my kids up for teams and lessons. I have let go of the fear that my children will fall behind their peers if we don't do everything. Life is a little quieter at the Stalcup home and the pace is a little slower. It has given us time to enjoy each other and time to be still and know God. It is something we all treasure.
Elizabeth Moll Stalcup is a freelance writer and the mother of three. She and her family live in Virginia.
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