In all children’s lives, there are always “off” days when they don’t want to go to soccer practice, sit for their music lessons, attend an after-school club meeting, or even go to school.
But what is a parent to do when a child puts his foot down and says, “I won’t go.” No, he doesn’t want to continue violin lessons, even though you’ve already paid for them, not to mention the violin. No, your daughter changed her mind and doesn’t want to play baseball any longer, or go to summer camp for that matter—even though, again, you’ve probably already paid for both. Typically, when kids do this they can’t even provide a reason for their change of heart, instead offering only, “I’ve just changed my mind!”
When parents find themselves in this situation, their first instinct, understandably, is to pull rank and insist their children finish the activity or club commitment.
Avoid the Dilemma Early On With a Talk Beforehand
“It’s natural for children to lose interest in things, especially if they’re not very good at the activity,” says Laura Lee Rose, mentor to teens and young adults and a corporate exit strategist in Raleigh, N.C.
An honest discussion between child and parent held before the child signs up for an activity can preempt future angry scenes at the bus stop, on the playing field, or at a music lesson drop-off.
Rose suggests parents talk with their son about why they want him to have the advantages that being part of a sport or club can bring—and also about the costs of the commitment in terms of the family’s budget and free time.
Once parents determine that their child is truly interested in an activity, Rose suggests they set a preestablished length of commitment, one that’s long enough for the child to have given her best and developed competence in the activity, based on her age and talent. Once that time frame has been established, Rose says parents should then have their child agree that she’ll remain involved for the agreed-upon time.
“When there is an explicit ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’” Rose says, “children can normally hang in there for that known period of time.” And if after that time period they decide to end the activity, “no one will feel like they are quitting” or being forced, Rose says.
Take a Deep Breath, and a Deep Look
What if that preemptive discussion didn’t take place, and parents are now faced with an angry child who refuses to continue the very activity she begged them to sign up for?
Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a California-based child and family therapist, says there are many variables parents should consider before backing themselves into a corner by responding with an equally angry “You’re going and that’s it!”
First, parents should determine which activities are negotiable versus non-negotiable. “Going to school is mandatory,” Walfish says, “so it must be enforced, versus the sports/camp/music-type activities, which are all optional.”
Next, parents should do some detective work and search out any underlying issues that might be the source of the struggle. She offers the following tips and suggestions:
• Find Out What’s Really Going On. With younger kids, is there anxiety about separating from Mom? Perhaps there’s bullying on the school bus on the way to games or events? Does the child feel he lacks skill on the athletic field? Is a young girl feeling alone on the team? Is your son so overscheduled that he’s too tired to attend practice? Try to search out the real emotional issue at the core of the resistance, Walfish says.
• Consider the Child’s Age and Developmental Stage. If your child is under age 6 and suddenly dislikes soccer, Walfish says it’s fine to pull him out and say, “We’ll try again later.” But for kids older than that, it’s time to consider pushing (but not forcing) them to fulfill the commitment they made, which will ultimately foster their growth and independence.
• Before Coaxing Your Child, Coach Yourself. Is your child’s wish to quit more an issue for you than him? Will you be embarrassed among your peers if your daughter quits the team? Are you annoyed that your son is seemingly defying you by avoiding meetings of the club he joined? Walfish suggests parents ask themselves three questions when arguing with their child about quitting a commitment: “How am I feeling in this moment?” “How is my child feeling?” and “What do I want to say that will foster my child’s independence and growth?”
• Support Your Child’s Responsibility When She Commits. If parents see their daughter developing a pattern of joining an activity and then pulling away, Walfish suggests implementing a simple strategy before the child signs up for something new: Let her know that while they support her decision to join a new sport or activity, they will hold her to her commitment. They’ll also support her, however, if a problem arises. For example, if the carpool ride to and from practices is overcrowded, parents could show their support for their child’s commitment by driving her to soccer practice themselves and even staying to watch, if she’d like.
• Show Genuine Support. If your son begins a pattern of resisting minutes before getting in the car to go to practice or a meeting or a game, Walfish says parents should say, “You’re going”—with a firm yet genuinely empathetic tone, followed by something like, “I know how hard it is for you.” Walfish explains that while parents want to equip their kids with self-coping skills—and often do so from a very early age, such as letting a napping toddler learn to self-soothe by using a pacifier—they shouldn’t try to prevent their older children from experiencing disappointment and frustration. Though difficult, these feelings and experiences will ultimately allow a child to develop important and necessary coping skills.