The issue of kids quitting — music lessons, summer camp, sports — has long been tough on parents.
My own quitting dilemma began the way many parent-child negotiations do: with begging. My son Bob had been pleading with me for months for permission to play tackle football. He offered to take out the trash. Clean his room. He even promised to be nice to his sister. Finally, when his teacher told me that Bob had taught his classmates how to go out for passes, I caved.
Bob's father died of pancreatic cancer when he was 2. So it did not surprise me that this athletic boy living with two females would want to test himself with a male-dominated sport.
But the intensity of the conditioning was unlike anything Bob had experienced. The boys did up-downs until their faces turned purple. They were forced to run laps holding hands as a punishment. While there was an emphasis on teamwork — in theory, football is supposed to be the ultimate team sport — there was a profound absence of positive reinforcement.
So after 13 weeks, and just before the season ended, my son did what his gut told him to do: He quit.
"It's not fun," he said wearily. "And I'm tired of the coaches making me feel badly about myself."
It was a difficult moment. I didn't approve of one coach's treatment of the boys, but was it really OK to quit? Would it make Bob a quitter? How does a parent know when it's time to quit or when it's time to insist that children stick to what they start?
The answer, of course, depends on the circumstance.
A recent study suggests that there are times when kids should quit, says Billy Strean, who has been studying kids and coaches for almost 20 years as a professor in the University of Alberta's Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation.
The results of the study also send a strong message to coaches who humiliate children: The things they do and say can turn a child off from team sports for years.
Although the study was designed to examine how instructors made sports fun for kids, the responses focused more on what coaches did wrong. Strean, in fact, says he was shocked by the emotional responses he received.
"The so-called physical education that I received as a kid robbed me of the joy of physical activity for many years," one participant wrote. "It did nothing whatever to establish habits of balance in life between the cerebral and the physical. Instead, the focus seemed to be on achieving excellence in a competitive setting. It destroyed my physical confidence."
Strean takes the position that sports should be fun for kids.
"It's a fantastic way to connect with others," he says. "You grow. You test yourself. There are so many phenomenal opportunities. And it is inherently enjoyable to get better at something."
Strean thinks children often quit because sports have become too organized and competitive. "As soon as you put uniforms on kids, it is no longer about fun and having a good time," he says.
Parents should try to watch practices, assess the activity and the coach, then trust their instincts when a child wants to quit, Strean says.
"My bottom line is why did you think it was a good idea in the first place?" he says. "Did it provide you with what you wanted?"
In his four years as a softball coach, Charlie Hutchinson, a father of two daughters, has had to counsel his share of parents whose kids want to drop out.