IT’S NOT A QUESTION OF COMMITMENT
by Pam Laricchia
Coaxing children out the door to get to their baseball practice or swimming lesson is practically a rite of passage for today’s parents. There are lots of reasons kids find organized recreational activities fun: they enjoy the sport or activity itself; the time spent with friends; the satisfaction of improvement etc.
But that’s not always the case. Sometimes their resistance to leave is more than the challenge of transitioning between activities. Sometimes they discover they don’t enjoy the activity as much as they thought they would. They really don’t want to go.
When this happens parents are often torn—dragging their child out the door isn’t fun for them either. But they worry that letting them quit now means they’ll always quit when things get tough. Or they worry about the money, “I paid for ten lessons, so finish them and then you don’t have to sign up again.” It seems like a reasonable compromise. At least on the surface.
Finding a good match
Let’s step back for a moment. When a child expresses an interest in joining an activity—baseball, girl guides, karate, ballet—what’s the first step? Typically, parents find the closest group and sign them up.
Yet with unschooling, our goals are focused on our child’s learning and enjoyment. So instead of basing our choice on our own convenience, we can choose to think of ourselves as our child’s partner in their search for a ballet studio or a karate dojo or a baseball league that will work well for them.
That’s an important distinction because the atmosphere surrounding many activities is dictated by the individual adults who run them. Before insisting our child adapt and change to fit in at the closest studio or dojo or whatever, we can be their partner and, where possible, help them find a good fit between the group’s atmosphere and their personality and goals.
What they learn by quitting
Choosing to quit an activity is as much a learning experience as starting it. That’s a different perspective, isn’t it?
Conventionally, quitting is akin to failure. If you quit something before the end, you have failed to finish it. That’s the sentiment that underlies the “finish your ten lessons” compromise. Yet what is your goal? If each week the lesson is an actively unhappy time for your child, they can grow to dislike the activity itself. Is your goal to turn them off ballet or swimming for the indefinite future? If you’ve paid $100 for a series of rec ballet lessons and they’re only half finished, might you consider that last $50 as an investment in preserving their enjoyment of dance?
One of the wonderful things about unschooling is that the children have time to explore the world, including a variety of activities. Yet if we continue to insist that they “finish what they start,” they will likely learn not to try out activities unless they are very sure they will enjoy it: the fear of being stuck there will outweigh their curiosity to explore something new. Less learning.
Or maybe we’re worried that our children wanting to quit means they will always give up, rather than rise to a challenge. Again, that’s fear talking—the choices they make today don’t define all the choices they will make in the future. The choices they make today are helping them gain experience with making choices. Not to mention, challenges that aren’t motivating and inspiring for your child are probably not the right kinds of challenges for them. That’s a great thing to learn!
Over the years unschooling children will gain lots of experience with wanting to try something, choosing ways to try it out, and seeing how well those paths met their goals. They will discover things they enjoy and things they don’t, and get a better feel for the clues that help them decide when to step up their game and when to quit and move on.
And each time they choose to quit, they’re still learning. How does that choice feel? Do they miss the activity? How much? What do they miss about it? What are they doing with the time that quitting freed up? Are they enjoying that more than the activity? Less? So much learning! And quitting is not a forever decision. Now that they better understand the environment, they may choose to go back at some point in the future.
Children who have the freedom to explore a variety of things and discard those that don’t catch their prolonged interest do not feel like failures when they choose to drop something. Instead they see it as another experience from which to learn a little bit about something, and a lot about themselves.
Quitting doesn’t mean stop learning
Moving on from an organized activity needn’t mean an end to learning about it. What if they really don’t like swimming lessons? If your wish is for them to enjoy swimming and be safe in the water, find the ways they do enjoy the water and explore those for now. The adventure of water parks? Playing at the beach? Jumping off the dock into the lake? A wading pool in the backyard? Open your mind to the many ways there are to enjoy water beyond swimming lessons.
Joining and quitting activities is more about helping our children explore their world—the activities and environments that spark their curiosity and bring them joy. That’s where the learning is. If they discover a passionate interest, they will doggedly pursue it, even through many challenging moments. You don’t need to teach this kind of unwavering commitment by requiring it in everything they do. Instead, help them find things that they enjoy so much that their dedication and learning flows naturally.
First published in The Natural Parent Magazine, Issue 15, Winter 2014.