When my daughter told me she wanted to quit gymnastics, my first feeling was one of relief, which quickly progressed to guilt, and then to frustration with her for wanting to give up on something that she was so good at. Relief, because shuttling her back and forth to classes four times a week, entertaining her younger sister in the balcony above while she practiced tumbling and bar work, and paying the gym a significant amount of money every month was overwhelming. The instructor had approached us about signing her up for “the team” as a fourth-grader, which meant not only more money out of pocket, but traveling to competitions twice a month as well. I was proud of Erin, amazed by her ability, and thrilled that the coach singled her out. But I also worried about the impact on our younger daughter.
I felt guilty because this was something E. was good at, that she enjoyed, and I shouldn’t be quibbling about it. What if it resulted in a college scholarship or lifelong friendships or competing at the Olympics? What if I let her quit because it would make my life easier and she resented me for it one day? What if it meant I was a lazy parent, putting my needs above my child’s?
When I imagined what others would think, frustration entered the picture. Why would my kid even consider quitting? The word itself conjured up ugly emotions and my dad’s voice in my head: We are not quitters. We see things through. We make commitments and keep going. We don’t stop when things get tough!
Years later, I went through the same three stages when my youngest daughter told me she wanted to quit playing lacrosse. She was a fabulous player — fearless, fast and equipped with strong instincts. As much as I dreaded the weekend jamborees, sitting for hours in the pouring rain with hand-warmers crammed in my pockets, I loved watching her churn through the muddy field at top speed, weave her way in and out of the other players and whip that ball out of the stick to make a goal. We argued, shed tears, and, again, I felt as if I would somehow be eschewing my parental duties if I allowed her to quit.
Three years after that, when she approached me to say she wanted to take a break from guitar lessons — that she wasn’t sure she was learning what she needed to learn and she wasn’t enjoying it anymore — my dad’s voice echoed in my head: Life isn’t always fun; you’re good at this, and if you’re quitting because it’s hard, that’s not a valid reason to stop; how do you think you’ll ever get better?
In each instance, I patiently listened to that voice, acknowledged it and then let my kids make the choice about how they wanted to spend their free time. And I don’t regret it one bit.
My parents were Baby Boomers — typical of the generation as I understand it, they were authoritarian parents who expected kids to only speak when spoken to, be polite and compliant, and express gratitude for everything we had. We were taught that being tough was important. Examples of toughness included sucking it up when we were challenged, never complaining or talking back to an adult, and honoring our commitments at all costs. Being a team player was vital. And you never, ever quit.
An entire generation of people (my parents’ generation) stayed in marriages and jobs that they hated out of loyalty and some false sense of commitment.
They were the generation that was drafted into service for wars in Korea and Vietnam; the workers who joined a company and never left. My dad worked for the same company for 35 years after his return home from military service in Saigon, went wherever they transferred him without complaint, never spoke of his time in the war, retired with a good pension, and died of cancer two years later, never having gotten to enjoy his retirement years. It’s no wonder I heard his voice in my head when my daughters told me they wanted to stop playing sports or taking guitar or piano lessons. That voice again: Where was their tenacity and perseverance? Wouldn’t staying engaged build character, even if they were unhappy for a while? Wasn’t the commitment they made to this activity more important than their personal feelings about it?
Sorry, Dad, no.
The first thing I did each time my kids came to me and asked to quit was to talk to them about what that meant. Were they unhappy with the instructor, worried about some social interaction with a teammate, or truly disenchanted with the activity itself? Erin, age 9, said to me, “I already go to gymnastics four times a week. If I join the team, I’ll go every weekend, too, and it’s too much. I want to try other things — basketball and horseback riding. I don’t want my only friends to be the other girls in gymnastics.”
“I love lacrosse, Mom, but the coach is only concerned with winning. He won’t play all the girls and we’re always competing with each other to get a spot in the game. Everyone is talking about everyone else behind their back and trying to ruin everyone else’s chance to play. And it’s not fun anymore. I dread going to practice every single time,” said my youngest when asked about her desire to quit.
I struggled mightily. My girls demonstrated natural talents. They were good at these activities. Was I making a big mistake if I let them quit? At some point, I realized that if I didn’t let my kids choose which activities to spend their time engaged in, the ultimate message I was sending was that committing to a group or activity was more important than their commitment to themselves. If I told them that they had to stick it out, I was teaching them that being miserable is normal and acceptable, and even encouraged so long as it’s in service to a bigger group. An entire generation of people (my parents’ generation) stayed in marriages and jobs that they hated out of loyalty and some false sense of commitment. Where did that get them?
Every time I changed jobs as a young adult, my dad lamented aloud, “Kari, your résumé is going to be 10 pages long. Nobody will hire you if they think you are just going to leave when you get bored.”
But why would I stay in a job that I hated? I was lucky enough, privileged enough, to choose, and wasn’t I ultimately doing my employer a favor if I only stayed as long as I was passionate about the work I was doing? I knew how to persevere through difficulty, I knew enough to determine which feelings were impulsive and transient and which ones were indicative of a more substantial issue. If I forced myself to stay, I would only get more resentful.
I also don’t want my kids to think anything is forever. The truth is, there are very few decisions in life that are do or die. If Erin regretted her choice to quit gymnastics, she could go back. Lauren could pick up guitar again at 22 or 47 or 68 and enjoy it. Yes, the child brain is more elastic than the adult brain, but there is almost never a time in our lives when we can’t change course and start to learn something new (or learn it anew).
Teaching my kids that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you should have to keep doing it was an important lesson for all of us.
I’m thrilled to report that Erin went on to dabble in basketball and cross country, and as a freshman in high school she tried out for her first musical theater production. She spent four years performing and building friendships with people who were as passionate about it as she was, and then she went on to college and didn’t perform again. She is currently an active member of her university’s a cappella choir, a sorority member, and is taking a range of classes that interest her. She isn’t in any hurry to choose a major. She’s 19 years old, and this is the time of her life when she is supposed to be trying things out. She isn’t responsible to children or a partner; she doesn’t have a car payment or rent to pay. It’s her job right now to explore and learn about the world and engage in activities that she is passionate about.
Lauren quit lacrosse and started taking guitar lessons. She played basketball and volleyball in middle school, and when she hit high school, she quit guitar and taught herself to mix and produce her own music on a computer in our basement. In the last year, she has written, recorded and released an album’s worth of work on Spotify and iTunes and she’s happy to be immersed in that right now. Who knows what she’ll choose to do in five years?
Teaching my kids that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you should have to keep doing it was an important lesson for all of us. While they are steeped in a culture that forces kids to specialize at a young age with club sports and immersive extra-curricular activities, it was challenging to let go and encourage my kids to listen to their instincts about what would make them feel fulfilled. I hope that those early lessons serve them well as they make choices about higher education and intimate relationships and jobs. As a mother, I’d much rather have my kids be able to tap in to their own passions in an effort to make themselves happy than to follow some path that our culture says they have to take.
The only guarantee in life is that wherever you go, there you are. Ultimately, we have to live with ourselves and answer to ourselves, and if we can’t give ourselves permission to do the things that make us happy, where does that leave us?