Let me ask you a question

Have you ever quit something? Full on walked away and didn’t look back?

Have you ever not quit something but really wished you had?

How did you make the decision? Do you have regrets?

The decision to walk away is a tough one. It’s even harder when it’s not fully your decision to make – for example when it’s your kid that is struggling to decide what to do and you realize that you have beliefs about what is best for them that may not match their choices.

How do you guide them forward?

My good friend’s mom always said “you can break up with someone if you don’t like the way they part their hair”.

For some people, walking away is as easy as “the joy is gone and therefore so am I”. For others, it feels more complicated; there may be a desire to quit, but a belief that the struggle is worth the outcome, no matter how unpleasant.
Your reaction to the above statement about parting one’s hair likely indicates what side of that equation you land on.

But it’s not always cut and dry; There may be pressure to persevere against our wishes or best judgement. And thus we feel stuck between intuition and expectation.

We have to ask ourselves, what are we fighting for? Is the struggle worth the outcome? Are we doing this for ourselves or for someone else?

I find there are two types of people who worry about quitting: Those that feel they give up too easily, and those that feel they don’t know how to walk away (or don’t know when to walk away).

Regardless of what your child’s struggle is – whether you want to teach them to persevere, or you want to help them give themselves permission to let go – today’s post will offer you some tips and tricks to help them on their way.

The first thing to consider when helping someone decide whether to stick it out, or to give it up is what the activity/situation in question is. Some situations require perseverance regardless of how unpleasant and devoid of joy. For example, recovering from trauma, addiction, or a toxic relationship. Recovery is inherently difficult, but no matter how un-fun it is, the only way forward is to not give up the fight.

Helping kids move forward is critical in these situations and it comes down to offering them support to identify, and then get over, the hurdles and roadblocks that could make them want to give up.

Then other times, perseverance itself is counter-productive. For example, many people stick it out and fight to maintain a relationship that simply isn’t serving them any longer. Yes, relationships are hard work. However, there is a limit. Helping kids understand that walking away may be in their best interests, even if they “didn’t feel they tried everything yet”, is important as it teaches them that they deserve better. We don’t want kids to grow up thinking that the only way to have a good enjoyable or healthy relationship is if they have to over-work for it. The same goes for a miserable job that pays well, or a college degree that isn’t in the right field for them.

But then there are the grey-zone situations where there is no obvious answer: Like “do I let my kids quit choir, or soccer?” “How much do I encourage them to keep at it, and how much do I say ‘it’s your decision’ to walk away?”

Let me share with you some personal stories and insights that may help you see the impact of these tough decisions, and then I will offer some insights into how you can navigate these with your own kids.

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My parents were teachers and believed in the value of seeing things through to completion. That lesson helped me through multiple degrees and is currently supporting me through starting a business that at times can feel really scary and overwhelming.

They also taught me that if I am not having fun anymore, then it was my call whether I was done or not. This helped me quit my dance training when I was burnt out from all the competitions, and leave my improv days behind when the environment and people became toxic.

On the surface, these two philosophies are what most parents strive for with their kids: Hard work matters, as does joy.  

But, truthfully it was more complicated than that:

I hated grad school and kept going despite my misery. I need to see it through to the end and just get the degree, despite the debt and tears and many many years slogging away. Years of my life that I can’t get back. Was it worth it?

I loved dance, and was really, really good at it (travelling the world for training and winning most of the competitions I entered #humblebrag)  – but I left it behind and have regretted it ever since.

I quit improv completely, but It wasn’t the activity that brought me down, it was the people and the environment. I didn’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m still ambivalent about whether to pick up the activity again.

At first glance, it seems I completely misconstrued my parent’s teachings. How did I get it backwards like that?

But on closer investigation, I discovered that  – similar to many of my peers – there was a broader cultural teaching that was influencing my decisions and it all stemmed from two simple words: “Good Job!”

Take these following examples:

In high school I wanted to play drums so badly, but I was offered flute.
I played the crap outta that flute and made it to “first flautist” in my band. I hated flute. But I was so good at it.

I was given a drum kit after much begging, and guess what? I quit after three months. I loved drums. But I was learning the skill. Turns out I hated learning new skills. I just liked excelling at skills.

I tried to go back to a new style of dancing once I recovered from my burnout of constant training and competitions, but I didn’t make it beyond the first lesson before I ran away from it. I wasn’t the best in the class from day one?? Inconceivable!

I look back and wonder why I never pursued the things that brought me joy, and stuck with the things that really weren’t pleasant. I realized it was because my motivation was external: I needed praise. I needed to be on top. My personal enjoyment in the process mattered less (if at all) because I needed the reward of “success” in order to feel it was all worthwhile. For me, being the best was how I derived my value and felt I had worth.

I may have been doing a “good job” – a great job even – but that shouldn’t have been my deciding factor.

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Perhaps you are similarly worried that your child will quit prematurely and have regrets, or that you will encourage them to develop the skills of hard work, and they will then stick with something that is soul sucking to them.

Here’s what you need to look out for:

1. That their self-worth isn’t derived from their success:

When we teach our kids that outcome matters more than process, we teach them that their value comes from their success, not their perseverance. This causes kids to continue to work at things that may not be right for them, and give up on things that are right for them.

If your kids’ motivation is derived from external praise (i.e wow, good job) and not inner enjoyment (i.e wow, looks like you are really having fun), they are being led down the wrong path. These kids may develop a fear of “failure” (and thus a fear of taking any risks), and we all know that the most “successful” people are the ones that fail a lot, and take risks that don’t work out, and keep going because they believe in something bigger than setbacks.

They believe in effort because the effort itself is rewarding (i.e wow, you really worked hard on that! Look at you go!).

The key is they are able to focus on what motivates them when times get tough and things don’t feel super joyful.

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Positive psychology suggests that in order to achieve this mindset, we need to encourage kids to be proud of their progress and not focus on the outcome.

(To be clear, this is not the same as “participation gets a trophy” because that is counter-productive. Participation awards teach kids that effort and engagement doesn’t matter because everyone receives the same rewards in the end anyway).

More importantly, we need to teach kids to tune into what it is about their progress and process that are enjoyable to them, and what they are learning from it.

Let’s say for example your kid isn’t sure about continuing with soccer. You want to say to them “let’s try it for one more season and then see”. You know you don’t want them to give up, but you need to be more specific about why you want that for them PLUS you need to balance that against an understanding of their perspective and experience:

Do you know why the joy has disappeared for them? Is it because they keep losing games? Their coach sucks? People on the team are bullying? They experienced a trauma? Or has the game itself become uninspiring, boring, or lacking the challenge they used to thrive on? Then, you need to identify what lesson you were hoping to teach them by encouraging them to keep trying. Were you hoping they would develop confidence or better social skills by staying on the team? You wanted them to increase their physical activity? You wanted them to understand that effort is important? You want them off their phones and out of the house actually interacting with people? Or, you knew it used to bring them so much joy and you are confused as to where that joy went and you want to see that spark back in their eyes?

Knowing the answers to these things allows you to a) work with them to find solutions that would either bring the joy back and motivate them to keep trying or b) ensure that they don’t miss out on the important lessons you were hoping to teach them by helping them find another activity that would equally benefit them but is more enjoyable, and therefore something they are more likely to stick with (and thus actually learn the lesson).

But without more information, you may just lead them down the wrong path for the wrong reasons.
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Bottom line: Too often parents encourage their kids to just stick with it because they have been taught that “hard work pays off” and they are worried their kids won’t know what hard work is or won’t know how to keep going despite set backs.

Truthfully, kids do know what hard work is, and are usually willing to engage in it, but they need support to identify their own intrinsic motivation and goals and thus help them take personal responsibility and accountability for their success.

So how do you support them?

Here are some questions you can ask:

Why did you start this activity in the first place? What helped you keep going when it was tough?
What made it joyful?
What is taking the joy away now?
What would bring the joy back?
(And how can I, as your parent, help?)
What were you hoping to get out of this activity? Is that outcome worth continuing for or is there an alternative activity that would offer the same benefit?
How will you feel in 5 years if you walk away from this? If you stay?
Are you doing this for yourself or do you feel pressured by anyone else to quit/to stay?
Are you looking for permission to quit or a reason to stay? How can I best support you?

At the end of the day, your child will experience the consequences of their decision and that in itself is a valuable skill in developing trust and resilience and personal accountability.

I hated that I quit dance. It upset me for years. It forced me to really think about where I put my effort, and why, and what I base my decisions on, and what supports I needed at the time to make a decision that maybe would have suited me better. It taught me the importance of self-care as integral to hard work, and the difference between an activity itself and the environment the activity takes place in (because one can be changed, and the other can’t).

I’m so thankful for those lessons and I continue to use them to this day when I am running my business – hard work pays off if its applied in the right direction for me, and hard work is only possible when I can find little things to enjoy along the way to keep me motivated when things are especially tough. To me, it’s about purpose.

What is the purpose of this activity for them? Meaning, what do they want this activity to mean for them? And if it doesn’t mean much beyond just hard work, then maybe it’s time to let it go.

…By the way, I now teach dance 🙂