Teaching Kids to Quit

Persistence is a virtue, but there's no need to fetishize it.

Andres Kudacki/AP Photo

My son has been doing martial arts for a couple of years now. He likes it for the most part—he just graduated to a level where he gets to learn how to fight with sticks, which is, he thinks, pretty great. So I was a little surprised when, chatting with him about it the other day, he informed me with some deliberation that he figured he would quit at some point. "I'll get bored," he said. "I'll definitely quit eventually."

There's no need to borrow trouble, so I didn't push him on it. But I know that, after all the work he's put into it, if he comes to me some day and says he wants to quit, I will look him in the eye and say something along the lines of, "Okay. If that's what you want, we'll quit."

Probably a lot of folks think that's not the best tack to take—even as I type I can see the silent, judgy pursing of lips. I've talked about this here before in terms of adults quitting the workforce, but the stigma against quitting can be even more iron-bound with kids. American parents (or at least middle-class American parents) frown on giving up willy-nilly just because you're bored. How will you ever overcome hardship if you just give up when the going gets hard? we ask.  As Delia Lloyd says in a recent piece at Brain, Child, "There’s a real value in old-fashioned perseverance. And with all the talk of 'life skills' these days, I don’t think it’s a bad idea for children to start learning the value of commitment early on, even when they find something onerous."

I'd agree that commitment to a difficult undertaking is worthwhile. But I think there's plenty of opportunities to learn that without throwing up arbitrary tasks for extra bonus unhappiness. Life doles out sufficient sadness and struggle to just about everyone. My childhood was really quite happy as these things go, but even so, no one had to invent obstacles for me. I had unpleasant interactions with bullies. I had some nasty asthma attacks. I had a bout of Crohn's disease that gave me shooting stomach pains while I took the SAT; I had to leave and vomit halfway through it before coming back and finishing the test.  Again, this isn't to say that my life was particularly tough, which it wasn't. It's just to say that, no matter how un-tough your life is, you don't need to find troubles. They'll find you sure enough. Ask yourself, each of you, reading this: Do you really think your life has been so devoid of cares that you need to take up a pastime you dislike in order to teach yourself what adversity is?

You do need to learn how to deal with adversity, of course. And one of the best ways to deal with it is to quit. In fact, I'd argue that quitting is one of the most important life skills you can teach your child.  I know my own life has been shaped, generally for the better, by my decisions to give up. Quitting my full-time day job was terrifying and shut down my chances to go into management—but it meant I could watch my son, and gave me a chance to concentrate on freelancing. If you're going to change your life, if you're going to try something else, you have to be ready to quit whatever it was you were doing before that something else showed up. Or, as Kristin Levitahn says (also at Brain, Child), "Giving our kids the option to quit celebrates the idea that they should have the chance to try out new things without the expectation that every new thing will fit."

It's true that there are some things you really can't quit. Many people are stuck in crappy jobs they would desperately love to leave, but they have to keep grinding along because they don't have any other options. And then there are some things, like marriage, where you need to consider the cost of quitting not just to yourself, but to the other person (or, for folks with kids, people) involved. Quitting in itself isn't necessarily a virtue. But neither is stick-to-it-iveness. Giving up something you love because you've hit a bump is a bad idea, but so is keeping a death grip on your own unhappiness.

Which is why I I'll be fine with my son quitting martial arts, if that's eventually what he decides to do. Martial arts, as he has figured out, was are not necessarily all that important. If at some point he's happier without it, then he should drop it and do something else. God grant him the serenity to stay with the things he's stuck with, the courage to quit the things he isn't, and the wisdom to know the difference.