When is it OK to let kids be quitters?

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

When I signed up my 8-year-old son to play flag football recently, I encountered a startling statistic: 70% of kids quit youth sports by the time they are 14. When the Citizenship Through Sports Alliance came to this conclusion in 2005, it cited coaching and parents as the reasons. What it doesn’t mention is how agonizing it can be for parents when a child says, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

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.

“In most cases, kids want to quit because they feel they are not good at something,” Hutchinson says. “We tend to not want our kids to suffer. I think it’s part of the culture where everyone gets a trophy. Parents should make them stick with it. You made a commitment? You should finish it.”

Hutchinson, however, agrees with Strean that coaches need to “stop worrying about winning and start having fun,” he says. “How else do you build a love for something?”

When Tucker Carney was a child, his parents allowed him to quit everything — and he wishes they hadn’t.

Today, the Los Angeles father of three said in an email, “I tell my son he can quit things only once he has done them long enough (and well enough) to decide if he likes them.

“For example, he didn’t like playing hockey when he was the worst skater on the team, but now he loves it. Does he still say he wants to quit sometimes? Absolutely, but almost always when it is coinciding with missing a birthday party or something like that to go to a game.”

There are four common motivations when kids want to quit, says Betsy Braun, author of the new book “You’re Not the Boss of Me: Brat Proofing Your 4 to 12 Year Old Child.”

“It may be the coach. It may be they don’t like the kids. It may be that it’s not fun. It may be that they had one idea … and it’s not that.” The key, she says, is to be prepared. It’s important for children to know what they’re getting in to before they start.

Today’s children are asked to commit to many things at a young age. Gone are the days when sports had a season, baseball in the spring and football in the fall, not to mention casual games in the neighborhood. “Children now play soccer all year long,” says Hutchinson. “There’s no time for other things.”

Braun is also shocked by how many parents expect their kids to be good at everything. “It’s no accident when we’re pregnant we say we’re expecting,” says Braun. “The kid is born with all of your dreams. Quitting means he or she may be dashing your dreams.”

Older parents sometimes approach their children the way they do their careers, with “tremendous purpose and deliberation,” Braun says. They want their child to have options as they grow into adulthood, but they also need to ask whether it’s too much pressure for a child who has religious studies, tutoring, language, piano lessons and sports.

“Refining their skills does not speak to the joy and relaxation that makes us people,” says Braun. “It makes for a burned-out, deluded kid.”

Update: Bob finished the season but refused to play in the playoffs or in a spring baseball league. Last month, however, two of his former football coaches contacted me about a flag football league that they promised would be about “fundamentals and fun.” So Bob agreed to try again. The coaches kept their word: The kids are having a blast. As a mom and a football fan, I’ve been delighted to cheer them on every week. But this time around, I applaud the coaches loudest of all.