Quit or carry on: When should you let your child give up?

How do you engage your child in music or sports so he won't give up?

By GreatSchools Staff

Your 10-year-old daughter decides she doesn't want to take ballet anymore after you've invested in years of lessons and the spring recital is right around the corner. Your 12-year-old son wants to quit the cello but begs to take up the guitar. And you're wondering when is it right to push your child to press on or agree to let him quit?

While there's no one answer that's right for every child, there are several factors to consider regardless of your child's activity. Our experts — a music education professor, a physical education specialist, a swim school director and a ballet school director — all agree: When your child begins an activity, create a supportive environment at home. This may help to keep his interest from lagging.

When it comes down to quitting or pressing on, the decision will depend on the child, her level of talent, the length of time she's been involved in the activity and her reasons for wanting to quit.

Music lessons and your child

Create the proper environment at home for your music student.

"Musical children are not born — they are raised," says Robert Cutietta, author of Raising Musical Kids and professor of music education at the University of Southern California. It all begins by creating a "musical environment" at home. He suggests exposing children from an early age to different kinds of music, and getting them to focus by asking age-appropriate questions, such as "What does that sound like to you? Does it sound like a bird, a tree swaying in the wind?" If you play a musical instrument yourself, let your child see you playing and express your love for music. "Kids see what parents value," says Cutietta. "If music is a part of your life and you value it, they will see that."

Prepare in advance for the end of the honeymoon period.

For most children who start playing an instrument, there's a honeymoon period when they are excited and anxious to play at every opportunity. "Parents are often tricked into thinking their child loves the instrument," notes Cutietta, "but actually it's just a new toy to them. From the beginning, parents need to prepare for the time when their child is no longer in love with the instrument. They should not take the child's interest for granted. They should set realistic goals, which should not be time-goals like 'practice for a half-hour each day' but rather music goals like 'play four measures of this piece.'" If you wait to put goals in place as your child starts to lose interest, it may be too late.

To avoid nagging, set a regular practice time.

Cutietta also suggests having a set time for practice each day to avoid arguing with your child who might say, "I don't feel like it now; I'll do it later." If your child knows that at 4 p.m. everyday he is supposed to practice, there will be less need to nag. "It's also OK to acknowledge that practice is not always a lot of fun," says Cutietta. "Music is not all fun. It's hard work and there's nothing wrong with that."

Don't rely on the spring concert as an incentive.

Cutietta doesn't advise reminding your child about the spring concert as a way to keep him engaged. "That could be light-years away, as far as your child is concerned," he says. "It's much better to have more immediate, easy-to-achieve performance goals." He suggests organizing a mini-recital where your child can perform in front of a few family members and friends. This can be easy to arrange and becomes both a goal and a reward.

It's OK to switch instruments.

"Letting a child switch instruments is really smart so long as they don't switch every few months," advises Cutietta. "It's good for a child to start on piano or violin but it's OK to explore different ones and some schools allow for that, too." Chase Nelson, now a 24-year-old in California and an accomplished violinist, adds this about his own music training, "My parents didn't compromise regarding my quitting but I always had the option of switching instruments. I moved from guitar to drums (the cool instruments) before returning to violin, an instrument with which I had accomplished quite a bit. I couldn't be more thankful that my parents kept me in music. A video of myself playing violin was what eventually got me accepted at my college of choice."

Sports and your child

"There are no right or wrong answers about giving up a sport," says Amy Kaiser, GreatSchools teacher consultant and 2005 Elementary Physical Education Teacher of the Year in Minnesota. But she offers a few pointers to make the decision easier:

  • Talk with your child before signing them up for a sport or activity. Do they want to participate? What are their goals for the season? Do they understand the time commitment and cost?
  • Try to see the season through. Some early practices are tough, or new coaches or situations are uncomfortable because they are different. Help your child to work through problems and try to keep the commitment for the season. Teammates, coaches and schedules are counting on a full season. After the season is over is a good time to discuss pros and cons and decide if they would like to continue the next season. Sticking out a tough season is a good character-builder and helps reinforce good work ethics.
  • If your child insists on quitting, find out all the reasons why. Maybe a discussion with the coach or with the team will solve conflicts or calm fears.
  • Know your child, keep communication open and help them make the best decision with the most information.

Communication is key.

When you start to see signs that interest in an activity is waning, communication with your child is key, according to Carmela Peter, artistic director of the Professional Ballet School and Young Artists Ballet Theatre in Belmont, Calif. "If your child is miserable and doesn't want to go back to the dance school, it could be any number of things. It could be that she would just rather be playing or it could be that someone said something that wasn't nice in the dressing room," notes Peter. "The bottom line is if they don't want to go, find out why. If it's because you don't agree with the philosophy of the school, you can always switch to a different school."

Check out the school's or coach's philosophy.

Peter also suggests finding out about the philosophy of the program before signing your child up for lessons. Although her school does train students who are interested in advancing to a professional level, they also train everyone, and treat students with respect by giving them correction and attention. They realize that not all students will become professional dancers but they think all students should be happy, learn, enjoy themselves and make progress.

Peter also suggests giving a child extra encouragement if you notice her interest waning. "Tell her 'the more you do, the better you'll get and the more fun you'll have,'" she says. "But at some point, you really can't force them but you should encourage them to finish out the year and make it through the end-of-year recital before quitting."

Give your child experience with different activities.

"If you give your child a library of experiences from an early age, you will easily know what they are good at," says Irene Kolbisen, co-owner of the La Petite Baleen Swim School in Half Moon Bay, Calif., and charter member of the U.S. Swim School Association and World Aquatic Baby Congress.

"You'll want to uncover their talents and let them blossom. Observe what they are good at and what they are struggling with. Pay attention to their learning styles: Are they auditory or kinesthetic (movement-oriented) learners? Do they get a challenge and want to immediately run away from it?" In that case, she notes, establishing a minimum period of time commitment might be a good way to encourage your child to meet the challenge. "Tell your child that you made an agreement that he was going to do this for X amount of time but after that period of time, you will reevaluate."

Kolbisen suggests being aware of your child's tendencies when she starts to complain: Does she have a valid concern or does she have a tendency to crumble when something becomes more difficult? Be sure to keep your own bias out of the picture and try not to invest too much in your belief in your child's talents. "Don't get hooked by your ego and saying things like,'when I was your age...' Think about who comes first - your child or your athlete," adds Kolbisen. "In the end, you hope the activity is a way for kids to have fun and find some joy."

Conflicting activities

Sometimes a child loses interest in an activity because there are too many conflicting demands on his time: soccer, tennis, cello, schoolwork - it can get overwhelming trying to fit it all in. Several of our experts agreed that when it comes down to eliminating one or more activities, it should be the child's choice what to eliminate, unless it involves a team sport, in which case, it's advisable to encourage your child to finish out the season and honor his commitment to his coach and teammates. "Don't decide on just one activity until age 10, or until you can determine what your child is good at," recommends Kolbisen.

At some point, you may just have to let them quit.

Quitting may be the right choice for your child's health, particularly if your child struggles to meet the challenges associated with the activity. In a 2007 report in the journal, Psychological Science, Canadian researchers Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch discovered that "people who can disengage from unattainable goals enjoy better well-being... and experience fewer symptoms of everyday illness than do people who have difficulty disengaging from unattainable goals." They found that teenage girls in particular who were unable to disengage from hard-to-reach goals had an increased level of an inflammatory molecule known as C-reactive protein (C.R.P.), which in adults is linked to diabetes, heart disease and early aging.

"There's a point when it becomes cruel to force a child to continue," says Cutietta. "Later on, you may wish they had continued, but it all comes down to goal-setting and family support from the beginning." Kolbisen adds, "When it's your gut feeling that your child is right about wanting to quit, then it's time to write a nice note to the coach and have good closure with grace."