Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Kid Who's Not a Quitter?

Vickie Bergman blogs about education and parenting at Demand Euphoria.

Last week, there was a segment on the Today Show with "parenting expert" Michele Borba, based on her article entitled How To Raise a Kid Who's Not a Quitter. First of all, I am always suspicious of anyone who writes a "How-to-raise-a-kid-who's-not" article, because I don't think it's possible to use a formula on your child to make him a certain way or not a certain way. Secondly, I recently blogged about how I Am a Quitter, and I don't think it's a bad thing. Why do people think it is important to raise "non-quitters"? Have they thought about what that means?

What does it even mean to "not be a quitter"? Certainly it can't mean that you never stop doing something once you have started. Because no one would qualify. So it must mean something else, like you never quit something because it's hard. Or you never quit something "in the middle" or until you have achieved a certain amount of success.

I'm also assuming that quitting "bad" things like smoking or driving drunk are not seen as negative. So we are only talking about quitting things that not everyone thinks are bad. Like sports teams or performances or other activities.

What if you quit something for a little while, and then go back to it and kick ass at it? Does that count as being a quitter still?

While you are thinking about forming a definition of someone who is not a quitter, here are some things to consider about quitting:

  1. Quitting is not forever. Quit is such a harsh word, it sounds so final, like it's too late to start again because you already quit. Look at Michael Jordan. Why is it not all right to take a break from things? I quit college for a year, and then went back. If people had convinced me that I was a loser or a "drop-out" because I was a quitter, maybe I would have thought there was no chance I could go back and finish.
  2. Your team might be counting on you... to quit. One of the things people like to say about the consequences of letting your child quit a team, is that he would be letting down his teammates. Let's be honest about this. If your kid is one of the worst ones on the team, he would probably not be missed. And even if he is the best one on the team, maybe his quitting would allow the next best players to shine brighter. In general, any one kid quitting a team leaves more room for the kids who actually want to be there to play even more of the time.
  3. Quitting one activity opens up space for other activities. We can't do everything all the time. Maybe your child wants to quit his baseball team because be in the school play. Maybe he quits the school play (if the play can go on without him, which it probably can, see #2) because he gets an unexpected opportunity to travel to an exotic place. Why isn't it better for him to be able to change his mind and choose what he thinks will make him happiest?
  4. Quitting something because it's too hard is perfectly acceptable. If it's "too hard" for your child, that means he has decided it's not worth the effort. Why should anyone else be able to decide that for him?
  5. You don't "save" money by not letting your child quit. If the money is already spent, then let it go. You forcing your child to continue an activity does not get you the money back. It just tells your child that the money is more important than his happiness.
  6. Forcing children to finish what they started might make them afraid to start things. And if they don't think it is safe to try different things, they might miss out on something wonderful. Make it safe for your children to try things.
  7. People who try more things are going to quit more things. Practically speaking. Think about it. Every thing your child tries is another thing he will probably end up quitting. Let him try more things! Let him quit more things! This is the best way for him to find things he really loves.
Why do we think we need to "teach" our kids perseverance? If your kids are enjoying something, if they find it valuable, they won't stop doing it. And if they don't, why shouldn't they stop?

Have you thought about what makes someone qualify as "not a quitter"? Because I still have no idea.


  1. You are forcing me to re-evaluate an experience I had recently -- a mother who allowed her 4-year-old to determine if she should continue violin lessons with me.

    In many ways I do believe it was a mistake -- the girl has many difficulties and challenges as a result of a delayed speech and delay in other developmental areas, and we had had a breakthrough that led to she and I doing really well together. I decided that I'd do better to regard her as a three-year-old in the activities I planned for her, and we were having a lot of fun with rhythm exercises and fine-motor games.

    Her older brother (11) was taking lessons too, and he decided to stop after about 5 months, and that was fine. At that point, the mom asked her daughter if she wanted to continue, and the answer (her default setting as far as I can tell) was,of course, no.

    The decision was upsetting to me as I was planning all kinds of ways to work with her and gradually move her ahead on the violin. What I don't understand is the parent who allows a small child to decide not to do something that should should be able to see is really good for her.

    Part of me thinks we should encourage kids to do things that we know will result in a feeling of accomplishment, even if they don't see it at first.

    It's a style of parenting I don't really understand. What do you think?


  2. I'd like to comment that sometimes we DO need to persevere and do something we don't like. Sometimes quitting ISN'T acceptable because of long term consequences. And sometimes, it's just a good idea to make sure children understand the decisions they make have long term impacts.

    Don't sign a kid up for an entire season if they've never done something, but after a few games, sit down with them and have them decide if this is what they want. List the positives and negatives, and then make them stick with it!

    I'm thankful I wasn't allowed to quit - I've been in situations where I desperately wanted to, but didn't because I could analyse the long term effects of doing so, and because it "just wasn't done".

  3. @Lisa Cooley, Thanks for the comment. For me, a sense of accomplishment feels so much better when it isn't mixed with a strong sense of "getting it over with." That's how I always felt about school. That getting done was the most important thing. It didn't really matter to me what I was learning or doing along the way. The accomplishments felt empty because I felt like I had no choice. I don't believe that forcing a child to do something is good for her. If the child is drawn back to the violin on her own, it will have much more meaning for her. If not, then she will find something else.

    @Graeme, What were the things that you desperately wanted to quit but did not do so? Have you ever tried to make a child stick with something? It's not as easy as it sounds. In what situations do you view quitting as not being acceptable?

  4. I think perseverance in the face of adversity is an important life skill needed by young people today. So many young people I work with simply crumble when faced with even the slightest obstacle. I attribute this to the prevalence of "helicopter parents" who always pave smooth paths and swoop in to rescue kids when things get tough.

    Jim Fay coined the phrase "helicopter parent" back in the 1980's. He has a saying that I have posted in my office as a reminder that "self worth is built from struggle and achievement, not from being made comfortable." I need this reminder because I have a natural tendency to try to make my students comfortable, even when they want to quit because they perceive what I'm asking them to do is too hard.

    I believe a good coach (or teacher) helps kids to achieve much more than they themselves believed possible.

    You list some reasonable situations and reasons for quitting, however as a general rule, quitting is not a habit I desire to take root in the character of my own kids.

  5. @Bill, I would argue that quitting is not a "habit" that some people have and others don't. It's something everyone does: stopping when they have had enough of a thing. "Perseverance in the face of adversity" is a vague notion. Are there are types of adversity in which you would agree that quitting, stopping, opting out, retiring, letting go, would be the best course of action? If so, then how is a vague notion of "never give up" helpful as a rule?

  6. I think it is a case by case decision. I, for one, disagree with letting kids quit, just because they don't like it, or it's too hard, or I think I'd really rather try something else reasons. The world is a harsh place. And the word quit isn't exactly to my liking either...I prefer not to let my kids 'give-up' before they've seen the possibilites! I like some of the points you've made...but I also believe that kids (just like adults, if given the chance) will usually take the lazy way out. Sometimes you have to learn that EVERYthing is not fun and games, and you have to see some things through...even though you don't WANT to...but you NEED to. My kids know that if they start something...we see it through, but it has not discouraged them from trying new foods, sports, classes, books etc. My 5 year old is not old enough to decide certain things for himself. For that matter, neither is my 10 year old. They are learning..and are given more responsibility all the time....but, with my is important to learn "this life is not ALL about ME and only ME."
    I am certain that our soccer team would not crumple if one of my sons quit their team...and occasionally it may be neccessary to do so...but as a general rule, at least in my's not acceptable to just quit, because. Someday there may be a wife and/or children that are depending on him...and if his whole life it has been accepted that if he didn't like something, then just quit, hmmm? Is that why the divorce rate is so high...because husbands and wives just give up on each other? Is that why abortion is so high, because the pregnancy got a little rough? Some things should be seen through to the end...and sometimes it's not all kicks and giggles. And...sometimes it starts with soccer, or piano, or baseball, or ballet, or church, or God! I am glad I am not a person who gives up; easily.

  7. @Anonymous, I know Vicky will have her own thoughtful response to your comment, but I feel compelled to chime in on this one. First, in her post, Vicky agrees it’s a case by case decision, but that the decision should be made by the child with guidance (not the insistence) of a caring parent or loved one. You share how the world is a harsh place. I’ve lived in Manhattan for more than 20 years and guess what? I don’t find the world a harsh place. I find it a wonderful place full of amazing friends, loved ones, opportunities and choices.

    I disagree that kids or adults will take the lazy way out when they are doing what they love. When I visit schools where passion is a priority (, your hypothesis just doesn’t stand up. I ask you, why must we learn that not everything is fun and games and how much of that do kids need to learn? If you ask many of them, they’ll say that’s what school is all about...teaching you that very little is fun or games. Fortunately, for me and others I know who follow their passions, our lives are fun and games. I’m not saying it’s easy, but when life is driven by passion, it is very enjoyable.

    I question why you think we must see everything through. I agree that it is great to try new things and that a conversation about the type of commitment we are making should occur at the onset. However, if the thing someone is doing just isn’t resulting in the expected outcomes, and after deeply thinking of the pros and cons, I believe choice, rather than force, is most powerful. You say your son’s soccer team would crumple, but I’m guessing your son doesn’t want to quit, and if he did, there is probably a very good reason that should be considered.

    You ask if having the ability to quit is why the divorce and abortion rate are so high. Well, indeed it is! Divorce: When women were given more freedoms and equality in society many of them choose not to stay committed in an unhealthy relationship. In the past women couldn’t vote, own land, or make comparable wages to have this freedom. Now they have it and as a result they are free and happier. Hear! Hear! to that.

    Of course choice is also why the abortion rate is what it is (which interestingly is at a 30-year low). Before that women still wanted abortions but couldn’t do so legally and it wasn’t reported. Now women have choice (it is reported) and they certainly aren’t doing it because the pregnancy got a little rough. Give me a break. It is often a result of the fact that they can’t count on the father and of course, much darker scenarios also exist. An interesting byproduct of that is the lower crime rate we began seeing in the 90s as explained in Freakonomics. Because unwanted children are more likely to become criminals, if not born, the result is less crime.

    I’m glad I have the power to decide to do or follow through with anything I choose. This has led to joy, happiness, success and ability to prioritize for myself in MY life. If you spend your life forcing your kids to complete things YOU think are important, you will not have empowered them with the independence or virtue that comes with following through and accomplishing because it was their choice to do as THEY believed was important.

  8. I think quitting can become a habit, but I don't think that forcing a kid to finish activities is going to help. For me, the habit of quitting is a by-product of perfectionism. That story needs to be edited once more, so I tuck it into a corner and ignore it, because I know it won't be perfect. And, if I edit it and send it out, I have to start on another one.

  9. @anonymous, you hit on a different, very interesting point which is never completing a task due to perfectionism. A close friend of mine has this problem with her partner who does amazing work on their house..."when he finishes." Finishing though just becomes sooo daunting because he is a perfectionist and also has a difficult time staying focused. I admit that I was watching, "Hoarders: Buried Alive" last night and the guy had a similar story. He had all these home renovation projects in mind, but as he had a self-professed mental illness of perfectionism and couldn't focus on, or finish one. The house was just a disaster of all these half started projects and tools and supplies. The obvious of just picking one thing at a time, lists and timelines just didn't help.

    When it comes to writing, why I love writing in a blog is that you can ALWAYS update your writing. It never has to be finished.

  10. I'll have to say that this post follows a well-known tip for successful blogging - assume a contrarian, unexpected point of view and defend it. (Not a critique, just an observation)

    Taken to the extreme, the "never give up" philosophy of parenting gives us Tiger Mom another writer who takes an unorthodox stand, and gains attention from it. I don't agree with her approach, by the way.

    @Vickie, of course I would agree there are times when it is the best course of action to quit. This may, however, be a question of semantics. Is retirement after a long career the same as quitting? I wouldn't consider it the same at all.

    I have quit a number of jobs, usually to take another, better job. Is that quitting in the face of adversity? Perhaps. Often, something was going on in my current job that was less than ideal, compelling me to look for something else.

    Napoleon Hill said that every adversity contains within it the seed of an equal or greater benefit, and time and again I've found this to be true. Getting a new, better job because the old one isn't any fun any more is a prime example of this statement in action.

    We sometimes have a notion in this country that you can be anything you want to be if you set your mind to it. But it just ain't so! Of course not everyone starts out with the same set of tools, skills, advantages, interests and abilities and there is such a thing as a pipe dream. You need to be reasonable in your expectations, but sometimes what seems reasonable is a different thing that what is actually possible. I don't know of anyone who became highly successful by accident. They all had to persevere in the face of adversity. They all had to persevere in opposition to the nay-sayers and critics. So many times, quitting is what people do right when they were on the verge of a break-through. Many times, the difference between success and failure is simply refusing to take "no" for an answer

    I've noticed a trend lately where any little bump in the road can derail some of my students and I think that's sad. They haven't learned to be tenacious and creative problem solvers. This even happens to gifted and talented students.

    I have seen some students who seem to have below average intelligence graduate with a college degree while other students with many times their natural talents and abilities flounder and quit. Maybe those students will return to graduate later. Maybe they will find another school or another major that will better suit them. I just don't know. But I do know that life rarely rewards dropping out.

    I want my own kids to have some very compelling reasons before they decide to quit something. Even better if they think through the possible outcomes before they begin an activity that they might be inclined to quit.

    And @anonymous & @Lisa (maybe I should have quit on this post but...) I think the questions of divorce & abortion have a lot less to do with a tendency to quit, than to do with a tendency to put self ahead of others.

  11. The key, IMO, is to be the kind of quitter who stops (at a reasonable end point) doing things that aren't interesting anymore, rather than the type of quitter who leaves projects that need doing unfinished for reasons of fear or perfectionism. And that can be a tough line to call sometimes.

  12. @Anonymous, the key to your insightful statement is that the quitter owns the decision.

  13. This post and several of the comments reminded me of situations I've had in the past with parents that I've worked with as a school counselor. Often, it has helped to reframe their student's behavior ("quitting," for example) simply by using different language. The word "quit" obviously has negative connotations in our society, unfortunately, and sometimes just a change of wording can switch someone's whole perspective. A few weeks ago, the mother of one of my students was set on her daughter taking band all the way through high school, and was upset that she wanted to switch out of band into art (her daughter LOATHED band, but had a real knack for drawing). When I presented it to her as her daughter "exploring" new things and developing other talents, she was much more accepting of her daughter's decision. A simple word change won't always be such a quick fix, but sometimes it can definitely make a difference.

    As a side note, I have a friend who, every six months, takes up a new hobby. She might take up blogging, for example, and then six months later will "quit" and switch to a different hobby for another six months. It alwasy struck me as a healthy, dynamic way to approach life in general.

  14. Children say "no" for various reasons. Before labelling them, i think its important to find out why they want to stop an activity.It often boils down to either, them getting bored or feeling the pressure of parental "enthusiasm". Usage of the word quitter seems to be related directly to expectations of coaches and parents.I understand the absolute necessity in children learning that certain things have to be done.In my experience children do get them done.Its the result or the quality that may not meet standards which then lead to comments and actions then eventually give us the "quitter"

  15. I agree. I think deciding that something you're doing is not right for you and trying other things is very healthy. If there is a fear to not start anything, I think that would be worse than trying things, "quitting", and then moving on to something else. When kids are empowered, encouraged, and their feelings about why they need to quit discussed, we have empowered youth to look at their lives and their talents.

  16. @Bill, You say "Is retirement after a long career the same as quitting? I wouldn't consider it the same at all. " What is long enough to be at something to consider it retirement instead of quitting? I understand the difference in the words, but I don't think one is better or worse than the other.

    Also, you can "want your children to have compelling reasons to quit something" just like you can want them to like classic rock music, but ultimately, it doesn't really matter what you want. That they feel compelled to quit something is enough for me with my children. I don't ever want them to feel they have to convince me of why or make up excuses that they think I need to hear.

  17. There is quitting, and then there is quitting. ;) I believe that if a child is not having success or enjoyment in something that is not crucial to their life, then it is no worse for them to quit than if I were to join a club thinking I'd enjoy the gardening discussion, only to discover that the club isn't in sync with the way I like to garden, which is organically. Why stay?

    If on the other hand it is something as important as learning to read and needing a tutor, and the child wants to quit, maybe it's time to see if the tutor and your child's needs are a good match. Quite often they are not.

    Yes, some things should not be quit. But some things should. A bad experience that is forced to continue can do more harm than strict "never quit" parents might realize.

    Just my opinion, of course. And I do see the pros and cons of both sides. Tough call sometimes!

  18. Do you know how many times I have wanted to quit playing the piano as a kid? Too many! But I'm so grateful my mother pushed me! It taught me discipline, gave me confidence, taught me that things don't come easy, you got to work hard and practice to get that feeling of accomplishment, etc. as a kid I hated practicing, I hated it! But my mom was determined to keep me going and I'm glad because it didn't just teach me to appreciate music but also all if the other things I posted above.
    Michael Jordan didn't take a break from basketball! He took a break from playing in the NBA but continued playing. Actually one if his best quotes is "
    “If you quit ONCE it becomes a habit.Never quit!!!”
    Parent needs to pick a sport, instrument etc that both child and parent can stick to! A lot of times yes a child wants to quit because they don't want to practice .. That's where parents come in to guide them. This happened to my then 4 year old who was excited to start Karate but soon didn't want to participate, would cry etc. so he had to come to class dressed and sit there and at least watch until he eventually got back into it. Now he loves Karare, he enjoys doing his katas and doing tournaments.
    There are exceptions like maybe the teacher is just no good... In that case you find new instructor but as a parent you have to show your kid in a firm but gentle manner that he can do it!