Why It’s Okay—Even Wise—to Let Your Child Quit

5 ways a child can benefit from quitting.

Posted Jul 29, 2019

RoboMichalec/Pixabay
Source: RoboMichalec/Pixabay

What parent hasn’t had a child who at some point or other says he wants to drop a sport or a team? Stop dance or music lessons? Or any activity you, the parent, may have invested considerable dollars or substantial time, perhaps cheering on the sidelines or clapping proudly at a performance?

Whether or not your child excels or is mediocre in the particular pursuit, you may feel stopping isn’t the solution. We’ve all felt that way for different reasons. Yet, shifting gears and yes, quitting, can turn out to be a smart move for kids.

In this guest post, Phyllis L. Fagell LCPC, school counselor at Sheridan School in the District, a therapist at Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Maryland and the author of Middle School Matters, explains why quitting vs. sticking it out could very well benefit your child.

Guest Post by Phyllis Fagell:

After a tough loss at a national fencing tournament, Sophie, 15, broke down crying. She said, “What am I doing here? I don’t belong here,” her mother, Jen “J.J.” Cannon recalls. Whenever Sophie questions whether fencing is worth the highs and lows, her mother reminds her that she can always take a break and reevaluate. Cannon sometimes worries that these experiences do more harm than good, but she also recognizes that fencing has become part of Sophie’s identity.

“What I know, and my husband agrees, is that this is about so much more than fencing bouts—winning or losing,” Cannon explains. “Being out there on the strip alone builds strength and character, and she belongs to a club that has become like a family.”

As a middle school counselor, parents often ask me if their child should quit an activity. As with Sophie’s scenario, there typically are no clear-cut answers, but I've come to believe that the decision-making process matters far more than the outcome. By imparting the following five messages, you'll raise a child who knows when to shift gears. 

Reframe quitting

There’s a misconception that quitting is cowardly, but when you insist that your children stick with an activity that makes them miserable, you may inadvertently teach them to stay in bad situations. On the flip side, kids who work up the courage to drop a detested activity feel more in control of their fate.

A child may stay the course for any number of reasons. They may have been told they’re gifted or shouldn’t squander potential. Or perhaps their parents have invested so much time and resources into an activity, the child is afraid to admit they’re unhappy. It can be difficult for an adult to shift direction, let alone a young child, middle schooler or teenager. They may need explicit permission or benefit from hearing stories of times when you faced a similar choice.

In her book, “Enough as She Is,” Rachel Simmons writes about feeling searing loneliness as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. “I wasn’t making friends. I spent most of my time in the cavernous Bodleian Library or running Oxford’s misty roads, wondering what was wrong with me. But I could not fathom leaving. Who quits the Rhodes Scholarship, that rarest of gifts?” she states. When she did quit, she kept it a secret for a decade. She was convinced that quitting defined her character. “I now know otherwise,” she writes. “Adolescence is a period marked by difficult transitions, and the choice to change course, drop out, and, yes, quit—with the right support and reflection—can be a spectacularly brave act of self-respect.” 

Reassure them that shifting gears can improve their well-being

Persistence and grit are important, but walking away might help kids lead happier and healthier lives. Several studies, including one by Canadian researchers Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch, have shown that people who are able to let go of unattainable or unwanted goals enjoy better well-being and experience fewer illnesses. 

Help your children figure out what’s driving them, what they truly love to do and what they hope to accomplish. As author and educator Alfie Kohn writes in The Washington Post, “Even if you don’t crash and burn by staying the course, you may not fare nearly as well as if you had stopped, reassessed and tried something else.”

Give examples of people who successfully pivoted

Quitting can feel counterintuitive. If your child (or you) needs reassurance, consider the many examples of well-known people who let go of one goal in favor of another. According to Business Insider, Vera Wang pivoted from professional figure skater to fashion designer. Astronaut John Glenn became a U.S. Senator in Ohio. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a backup linebacker for the Canadian Football League before he crossed over to TV and movies, among so many others.

Come up with an alternate plan

Your child may know they’re done with one pursuit, but don’t know what they’d like to try instead. “One tip I give parents is to say to their kids, you’ve got to try different things,” says Britt Rathbone, the director of an adolescent outpatient mental health practice in Bethesda, MD. “We never really know what someone is going to like. They don’t have to stick with it. Take out a list of activities, pick something and just try it. Say, if you don’t pick something, I’m picking something for you, and if you don’t like it, you’ll never have to do it again.” Rathbone recommends building risk-taking around their strengths and interests. If they struggle socially but enjoy drawing, for instance, sign them up for an art class.

Engage them in problem-solving

Make lists of pros and cons together and help your child assess whether it’s time to cut their losses and move forward. Acknowledge what they have to lose and what they stand to gain.

We have a cultural bias against quitting and tend to view it as “giving up,” but that’s misguided. Quitting can be empowering and free your child to discover new passions. As Simmons says, "wrong turns are rarely dead ends."

Copyright @2019 by Phyllis Fagell

References

Gillett, Rachel and Feloni, Richard. (2016). “19 highly successful people who prove it's never too late to change careers.” Business Insider.com

Hendriksen, Ellen. (2019). “7 Reasons to Feel Confident About Throwing in the Towel.” Psychology Today: July 2.

Kohn, Alfie. (2014). “The Downside of ‘Grit’ What Really Happens When Kids Are Pushed to Be More Persistent?” adapted from The Washington Post, April 14.

Wrosch, Carsten and Michael F. Scheier, Gregory E. Miller, Richard Schulz, Charles S. Carver. (2003). “Adaptive Self-Regulation of Unattainable Goals: Goal Disengagement, Goal Reengagement, and Subjective Well-Being.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: Volume: 29 issue: 12, page(s): 1494-1508.