Teaching Kids to Quit

By Sara Vigneri

When my daughter was five she convinced me that she wanted to take ballet. I purchased the expensive leotard and shoes and took her every week for the lesson. But as the weeks waned so did her interest. When she said she didn’t Quit2want to go anymore, I quickly did the math; the cost of the weekly lesson – the inconvenience of an afternoon spent in the ballet studio = let’s quit! But then I started to worry that allowing her to quit so quickly would teach her to be a failure. I worried that I was setting her up for life as a loser.

Our culture has a deep seeded dislike of quitting. The American Dream is about perseverance; achieving amazing things against all odds. And quitting is a sign that you aren’t tenacious enough to make it. I have to admit that when my daughter first put on that little leotard and slipped on her ballet shoes I had visions of watching her perform Swan Lake. But ballet isn’t in her DNA and it was probably wrong for me to put those expectations on her. “When we sign up young kids, we take the liberty of deciding what we think they should do,” explains Shel Dougherty a parenting expert and educator based in the Lehigh Valley. “Sometimes this works, but sometimes it backfires.” And let’s face it, our children’s failures feel like our failures and we may not want them to be quitters because we are afraid of how that will reflect on us as parents.

I worried that I was setting her up for life as a loser.

Many of us were raised to think of quitting as a sign of failure and often perpetuate that sentiment when we have children of our own. “We are hard wired to persist,” explains Alan Bernstein, LCSW, a psychotherapist and author of “Mastering the Art of Quitting.” “For example, when you go to the casino, the brain lights up when you get three cherries even though you know you didn’t really earn it.” Quitting, he explains, is a healthy, adaptive response when we realize that the path we are taking isn’t going to pay off. On the other hand, persevering in something that is futile is foolish. Why would you continue dumping coins in a slot machine to get those three cherries? It seems so obvious that in the case of the slot machine, quitting is actually the smarter decision than persevering. But yet, we don’t make that distinction when we quit careers that aren’t leading anywhere, or hobbies that aren’t bringing enjoyment.

To break the cycle of quitting like a loser, it’s vital that we teach our children how and when to quit. “If an activity is creating a great deal of anxiety or stress for the child or the parents, then making a choice to stop is healthier for everyone,” explains Dougherty. But if you have invested a lot of time and money, you may feel guilt about giving up. “The more people commit themselves, they start to think that if I just stick with it, it will work out,” says Bernstein. “To disengage is difficult.” Teaching kids how to trust their instincts when they know something is a dead end will set them up for a lifetime of knowing not only when to quit, but how to trust
their decisions.


While deciding to quit is a difficult decision, the tough part comes afterward when you must stick with your guns. You need to learn how to move forward and resist spending time ruminating on what could have been. Successful people know how to quit, explains Bernstein, and they don’t spend a lot of time on regret. And perhaps the best way to teach this to our kids is by example. “When we decide to quit something pretty significant, we should make sure we share with our kids the reasons why,” says Dougherty. “Show them we’re human, we’re growing and learning what’s right for us. And we’re not too proud to admit we needed to change course at times.”

Follow these steps to turn quitting into a teachable moment:

Ask Them

Ask your child if they gave 100 percent. “If the child says he has fully given everything he can, then your job as a parent is to authenticate,” says Bernstein. In other words, confirm their decision that it is time to quit. Help them understand why they were attracted to the activity in the first place – did they like the dance costume but then realized they hate learning dance? Did they think piano would be easy but hate the endless finger drills? It’s okay to realize that they went into the activity for the wrong reasons. If something is a bad fit, it would be foolish not to quit.

Give it Two Weeks

To avoid a child making a rash decision, implement a two week ‘think-about-it’ policy. “This approach allows someone ultimately to make a decision that feels right for them,” says Dougherty.” I think learning how to listen to your inner self and honoring what’s right for you is a very important life skill.”

Don’t Look Back

Much of the pain of quitting is the constant post-game analysis that goes on in our heads: “If I just stuck with it maybe it would have worked out.” But if the activity is making your kid miserable, you need to trust both your instincts and your child’s. “There are so many people in the world who are living an unfulfilling life,” warns Dougherty. “They were never taught to explore their gifts
and purpose.”

Plan the Next Act

“I played the piano on my parents’ recommendation for a few years,” admits Bernstein. “But frankly I had no talent. So then the question was ‘do I have another interest to replace it?’” You want them to think about what their next goal might be – if they didn’t like ballet, would they like to try karate? You want to help them explore the way forward, instead of focusing on what they are leaving behind.

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