How to Help Your Child Learn When It's Okay to Quit

Ask the Expert, Behavior and Discipline

Growing up, one of the many values instilled in me was to never give up. Being raised by a single mother taught me that being independent, fighting through trials and not throwing in the towel were virtues that I needed in my life. And while those values helped me get through school and into a great career, I sometimes wonder whether there is a downside to seeing things through no matter what. What if, instead, we actually gave our children the space to quite some things every now and then?

I know what you’re thinking: I don’t want my child to think that it’s okay to just give up when things get hard. And I’m with you on that! However, do we ever teach our children when to know that it’s a lost cause or how to develop an awareness of when it’s time to throw in the towel? It can be tough watching our children struggle—and it can be equally frustrating to watch our children start and stop things as they grow older. But what I’m proposing is a strategic and teachable way to help our children know when to quit. By following these four steps, you can be sure that even if your child decides to walk away from something, he’s making the best decision for his life, and, in that sense, he’s really not a quitter at all.

Set Realistic Goals

The best way to know if—or when—it’s time to quit is to know if what you’re striving for is an attainable goal. Kids always have great plans for themselves, but sometimes they don’t have a clue on how to execute them. Likewise, they may not actually know whether they will be able to achieve that goal even if they do everything in their power to reach it. I encourage parents to have meaningful discussions with their children that focus on setting realistic goals for their child that will move them closer to attaining their dreams. And as the parent, you can help your child plan for barriers and obstacles by asking open-ended questions about how they’ll handle opposition, frustration and fatigue on their journey. The reason setting realistic goals helps when deciding if your child should quit is because you have a tangible plan that allows both you and your child to see where it might be time to let this goal go (when you’ve completed all the steps on the plan and still not made any progress, for example)—or when a few tweaks might need to be made.

Get To Know Your Kid

Kids grow and change at an alarming rate! As they get more involved with peers and extracurricular activities, it can be difficult to keep track of who they are and who they are becoming. But when it’s time to determine whether your child should give up on a particular goal or activity, having a good understanding of who she is will help you guide her to the right decision. You can begin to get to know you child better by planning dates—just the two of you—during which you let her talk about where she is in life and how she sees the world. Another cool strategy that I encourage my parents to use is to watch TV shows or movies with their child and then ask them questions about certain characters or events. Getting a sense of how your child understands decision making in external characters is great information for you to see how your child views life. As you get to know your child’s thought processes and perspectives, you’ll actually be able to see if they have to ability to push through hardships or if the need to quit what they are working on.

Teach Them About Grit

As a side effect of knowing your child, you’ll get to see whether he has “grit.” Clinical psychologist Dr. Angelica Shiels says that grit is “sticking with something even though it’s not fun” and stresses that it is a valuable skill for children to have. When we learn to tough it out, we also learn a lot about ourselves—but what we learn is not always what we thought. Sometimes sticking it out teaches us that we’re not cut out for a particular task—and that’s okay! Dr. Shiels says that her own children “tried several different activities before they found something that fit with their natural abilities and interests.” What’s important when teaching children about grit is to stress the importance of committing to something that will not always be fun to do. Ultimately, that task will help them learn more about who they are and what they’re capable of. When you and your child do decide to quit something, make sure that there’s space to reflect on what worked and didn’t work so that you can turn quitting into s step towards developing more grit in your child.

Check Your Own Baggage

We sometimes struggle with letting our children quit because quitting is connected to our own feelings and life experiences. When your child comes to you weighing the decision to quit a class, a sport or anything else, I challenge you to examine what quitting means to you. Ask yourself what values you place on quitting, and reflect on the times that you quit something in your life—whether as a kid or an adult. This exercise gives you space to nurture the strong feelings you have about quitting while also allowing space for your child to develop their own understanding of quitting. This is the piece of parenting that can sometimes be the toughest: knowing how to be reflective of our own experiences while simultaneously allowing our children to have their own experiences.

The overall idea is that knowing when to let our children quit is a multi-faceted decision that doesn’t have to be made hastily. As a guide for your child, you can help him understand what it means to quit, when it’s okay to walk away from something and how those reflections will help him build a healthy sense of who he is as he matures.

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