Issue No. 33, October 2011
We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom
~ Mark Twain
Raising a Quitter
No parent sets out to raise a quitter. Your lip curls just at the suggestion, doesn’t it?
My thoughts on this loaded subject crystallized when the following questions from a reporter came across my desk: “When is it okay for a child to quit a sport or activity? How can parents determine the difference between a truly bad fit and a child who simply wants to stop when the going gets tough, only to start another activity and repeat the cycle?”
I had to tuck my own lip back in place as I considered what we define as a quitter. Definitions can be very subjective, and in our definitions of so many everyday words, like “quit,” our attitudes about parenting often collide with objective evaluation of what might be best for our child. Consider the quitter: quitting is a behavior, and behavior is a parenting paradox. When our children behave “well” or “appropriately,” we take pride in them, and in ourselves for having so ably taught them, whether by direct instruction or by setting the good example. But when they present us with “undesirable” behavior, we are less likely to look within our own behaviors to find the influence on theirs. Yet the seeds that sow a quitter may indeed come from our hand.
How does a quitter come to be a quitter? A house will “quit” if placed on ground that cannot withstand its weight and structure. A seed will “quit” if buried in soil that hasn’t the composition or nutrients to nurture growth, or if buried too deep, or not deeply enough. Bread dough will “quit” if you forget to add yeast to the mix or if the kitchen is too cold for it to rise. The house, the seed and the bread dough all fail to perform as we wish them to. But inadequately prepared and supported, they were destined to “quit.” The responsibility for that lies with those who neglected to lay the foundation, cultivate the soil, and provide essential ingredients and conditions.
Autism sets up many obstacles to finding activities in which our kids can participate successfully. Some common hindrances: narrow range of interests, motor difficulties, lack of social skills, language processing challenges. Like many of you, I invested Herculean effort in finding activities in which my kids with autism/ADHD could succeed. But find them I did; both of my sons can look back on childhoods that included multiple sports, camps, theater, Scouts, art. I attribute much of their success to meticulous child-centered selection of their activities, incorporating all of these elements: their interest level, their buy-in, their social, emotional and physical readiness, the social and physical environment of the activity, and ongoing collaboration with the instructor or coach. But just as big a part of the mix was our encouraging them to develop a mindset of exploration, sans stigmatizing language like “quitting.”
We raise quitters when we choose to see serial sampling of a range of activities as “quitting.” What if we let go of focusing on what we perceive as a premature end point of an experience and focus instead on the process itself? What if we call that process “exploring” or “discovery?” We presume no outcomes, but grant our young explorer the option of reaching a point where continuing on either appeals or doesn’t. We acknowledge that remaining in an unenjoyable or stress-inducing activity actually postpones the time when our explorer can try again. A healthy spirit of exploration doesn’t impose a sense of failure when honest effort doesn’t produce a pre-supposed outcome.
When we encourage new activities in the spirit of exploration, narrow-interest children can come to understand that we find pleasurable activities through sampling and experimentation, and if in that exploration we discover activities that we don’t enjoy, discontinuing them doesn’t constitute “quitting.” The process and the experience of exploration can feel noble, expansive and enervating. We take that brave-new-world thrill away from our children when we decree that each and every activity must be one our child will stick with until some pre-ordained end point (the last game, the recital, the merit badge)?
In our house, the agreement with my sons was that they had to try one new activity per summer, but if after a reasonable trial period of reasonable effort (usually two weeks) they hated the activity, they did not have to continue. Years later, I can recall their successes, but I can’t easily conjure their “quitting” because we simply didn’t see it that way. Ironically, knowing they always had an out seemed to make it easier to stick with something that was of dubious enjoyment, as in “I’ll finish the season because I’m part of the team, but I don’t want to play soccer again.” They also learned to identify legitimate reasons for halting an activity: “I’m too tired to do my homework after practice and it’s stressing me out.” And they learned to find something they liked in the activity, even if it wasn’t the activity itself: “I don’t want to go on with guitar lessons after summer is over, but I sure like the teacher; he’s fun to be with.”
When a child wants to quit because “the going has gotten tough,” and if quitting has become a cycle, it’s imperative to know, not guess at, why. Some possible reasons:
Inadequate teaching/bad social dynamic. My experiences with my children taught me that there are people who teach well, and there are people who may be highly accomplished at their art or skill, but leave something to be desired as teachers, particularly of students with learning differences. As a kindergartener, my son Connor demonstrated an eye for color and composition in his drawing, so we enrolled him in a touted after-school class at his school, taught by a local artist. After a few sessions, this instructor called me, snarling that he could not teach “this child.” Connor was too, shall we say, energetic for the artist’s temperament and classroom expectations. (Kindergarteners!). When I phoned the director of the after-school program, she said, “I teach art class too. I’m not an artist, just a teacher who likes art, and I like your son. I would love to have him in my class.” You can guess the outcome. The teacher who loved art, not the artist trying to teach, was the key to my son’s successful participation.
Activity or instruction moves too fast. Often, a child with autism may be perfectly capable of the activity itself, but a plethora of rules to remember, or instructions barked from afar impede her ability to participate.
Cutting into homework time or sleep, creating stress, anxiety.
The pace of exploration can also be a factor in whether enjoyment comes from an activity. Your child’s classmates and cousins may be able to handle soccer, Scouts and church choir (although we don’t really know how well they handle all that, do we?) but limiting your child to one well-chosen activity at a time may better his chances of success.
Baby, it’s you. Sometimes we push our child toward activities that fit our profile and schedule rather than his. We need to plug an after-school hole on Thursdays. The piano teacher is our mother’s best friend and will give us a discount. Our neighbor’s kid is doing Activity XYZ so we could car pool and trade babysitting. I read a smug little article recently advising parents of students with ADHD to improve their child’s ability to focus by signing him or her up for chess club. Having raised a child with ADHD, I can think of few things more disruptive to a chess club than a child with ADHD who has no interest in chess and has just spent six hours trying to focus. Activities that do not place the child’s abilities or interests foremost are breeding grounds for quitters.
I knew we had instilled a healthy attitude about leaving activities when after six years, Bryce decided to not return to the school track team. “I’ve had a great time with it,” he said. “But I’m ready to retire.”
Next month: All-inclusive: How parents and coaches can encourage group or individual sports involvement for children with autism.With more bullet points than a country road sign, this easy-to-read checklist sheds light on how extenuating circumstances can affect our kids’ ability to participate, and offers dozens of simple accommodations that can make all the difference.
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Book excerpts on website
Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew
Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew
1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, 2nd edition
The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled
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©2011 Ellen Notbohm | Third Variation Strategies