Every parent has heard it. Student advisors, deans, college counselors, and teachers have heard it too. A boy comes to talk with us, maybe thinking he will say this or maybe thinking he is there about something else, but in the course of the conversation about what is going on in his life, he says, “I don’t want to do ______ anymore. I want to quit.”
We know children need to develop more persistence, more resilience, and more “grit.” It is a hot topic in educational and parenting research right now and has been for a number of years. I don’t disagree with those ideas. The ability to keep going when things get tough or when things aren’t going our way is something we all need to practice, beginning as small children and continuing on throughout our lives. And it is a practice…children do not start out with the ability to be persistent. They need opportunities and support to practice what it means to keep going in the face of challenges in a lot of different areas of their lives – academics, extracurricular activities, athletics, artistic endeavors, and so on. We need to make sure that we help them manage such moments themselves, while also modeling how we manage similar challenges in our own lives.
But there is a right time for a child to quit something, and doing so in a thoughtful way can open the door to personal growth and further opportunities.  After all, how many of us are doing the same activities, hobbies, and sports that we did at age 7 or age 17? Our interests and engagements change throughout our lives and the fact that they do shows our own growth as human beings and a continued interest in learning and doing new things. If your son wants to give up an activity, sport, instrument, or other involvement, how do you know when it is the right time to do so? When should you continue to suggest he keep trying versus exploring other options that might be right for him?
Clearly, the tricky part as an adult guiding a young person is figuring out when to keep encouraging a child or teenager to stick with something or when to support them as they transition to something else. Remember that your momentary discomforts are worth the long-term benefits for your son. But we also don’t want a child in a position where an activity or involvement has become such a negative mental or physical space that it harms them or holds them back from more positive opportunities. 
If your child wants to give up an activity, sport, instrument, or other involvement, the most important questions might be these:


Is this one bad event/day?

We all have bad days. A practice might be especially demanding and your child comes home saying that quitting is a must. A young actor might not get the desired part in the spring play and announces at the dinner table that he will not be acting in any more shows. A bad grade on a math test or English paper might prompt your son to come to you saying he needs to move down a level of rigor in his class. While your child needs to know that you hear the concerns being shared, one tough day, lost part, or bad grade is not a reason to quit anything. Often, the child is back in a better frame of mind by the next morning and can’t imagine giving up the activity they love or the class that they otherwise enjoy. When your child announces a desire to quit, while listening to their concerns and expressing empathy for how they are feeling, resist the urge to immediately react and remove them from the activity. Suggest sleeping on it and seeing how they feel in a day or two. By guiding them into seeing that taking time to avoid a rash decision can be the best way to handle such a situation, you are modeling persistence for them and helping them to grow that ability in themselves.


Did a specific and unusual event outside of the child’s control prompt this wish or need to quit? How severe is that event?

In my time as an educator and parent, I have seen students and my own children face moments of real challenge that are beyond them to fully overcome without giving something up. Recognition of that kind of moment and how the young person responds are important moments of personal growth. For example, such a situation might be a season-ending injury in a sport that forces them to change their relationship to an activity, or, in a much happier light, the sudden discovery of a new talent or passion that opens up a wholly new road ahead for that child or teen. These are often particularly challenging moments because they seem to happen in such a way as to cause an outsize impact on the child’s whole life, not just the part they may be giving up or quitting. Sometimes quitting just has to happen, for reasons that can be truly difficult or ultimately good; while the suddenness can make this kind of decision especially challenging, letting a child know that this is not the result of anything they have done wrong is most important here. Acknowledging how hard this moment may feel, how seemingly beyond their control it may be to change, can help them to manage a quitting situation that feels forced on them from the outside. Support them as they explore what their next endeavor might be, especially if that endeavor is simply taking care of themselves or those around them as they move on from a specific event.


Is the desire to quit something that has come up over time? Is it accompanied by a wish to do something else?

Your son may be bugging you for the third year to drop his study of the trumpet, which he never seems to practice anyway. Your baseball player may be sullenly climbing into the car, complaining about another weekend of travel team games, and telling you yet again he wants to quit the sport. Your scientist may be balking at preparing for another science fair competition, sharing that he would much rather spend his time working on the rocket design he wants to build with the rocketry team. Despite a tutor and hours spent on homework, your honors math student continues to struggle mightily, and you are concerned about him in tears over yet another low grade as he shares that he just can’t do this anymore. If any of these happens once or twice and then stops, it can often be chalked up to a temporary frustration with a challenge in any of these endeavors. But reoccurring over a longer period of time, accompanied by those wishes to quit? We have to realize when our children have had enough, especially when continuing could be actively harmful to them or our relationships with them. In these moments, sometimes the best question to ask might be, “Okay, let’s say you quit. What would you do instead?” The young man who can suddenly articulate another class pathway, another sport, or another activity has given this far more thought than you might have…and he sees where his pathway could lie in a way that feels truer to him. At that moment, you may be thinking of the hours put in, the potential talent “wasted,” and dollars spent on this activity. But he is thinking of the person he would be if freed from the commitment which is no longer meaningful to him. I would advise at least one conversation with the teacher, the coach, or the supervisor of any activity to make sure both you and your son are clear on what stepping away at this point means. However, with that information in hand, if your son is still insistent in the same way he has been over a long period of time about quitting this involvement, it is time to hear him and help him transition to something else in which he sees more opportunity, growth potential, and interest.
Yes, I did make my nine-year-old son finish the flag football season he desperately wanted to quit (I believe that finishing a season that the family has paid for and where a child has committed to the team is the right thing to do); he went on to focus on another fall sport and was so much happier. When my college counselees tell me they want to quit an activity, I ask them to tell me what they plan to do instead; if the wish to quit has been with them for a while and they can articulate a plan for what they will pursue instead, I then try to help them bridge that transition in a timely manner. There is no activity that a student should be “doing for a college application” that guarantees any college result and certainly not at the expense of something else that the student would rather be doing, and which is personally more meaningful. When to quit played or plays into both of these situations and might be where you have to offer the young person in your life some specific support and guidance to bring something to an appropriately timed close.
Quitting has an important role to play in all of our lives. Rather than being seen as a negative event, it is a chance for the young man in your life to do something he values more or genuinely wants to explore. We want to help our sons and students learn and practice knowing why and when persevering through challenge can be the right thing to do, or when quitting might open the door to so much more.

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Jennifer Beros, Associate Head of School and Interim Director of College Counseling at University School

Jennifer Beros is the Associate Head of School and Interim Director of College Counseling at University School. She joined the faculty in 2011. Her career in education spans more than 25 years and has included teaching high school history and life skills, teaching middle school social studies and language arts, graduate research, and instruction at the collegiate level. Jen has presented at the national conference of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors and helped to initiate and coordinate many college programs for Cleveland Independent School students and parents. She earned her B.S. in Education, Cum Laude, from Miami University, her M.A. in Comparative Politics from American University, and her M.A. in Education from Ursuline College.