Meghan Leahy

My daughter wants to quit dance. Should I push her to continue?

Q: My 8-year-old daughter has danced for three years and requested another year this past summer. She now wants to quit because it has become too hard (her words). Aside from having paid for the full year, we want her to honor the commitment she made. She has shown talent and genuinely enjoyed it, but her drive to avoid the greater challenge seems to outweigh the earlier enjoyment. How hard should a parent push a kid in these situations when she wants to give up?

A: It’s interesting that this question would come into my life. I just stood on a playground with a good friend, having a long discussion about when and how children should be able to quit activities.

Your essential question of “How hard should a parent push a kid?” always gives me pause. When I hear anything associated with pushing a human (especially a child), I imagine a person dragging a donkey toward water. The tighter you grasp the reins, the more the donkey holds back. When you get behind the donkey and push as hard as you can, the donkey just leans into you, refusing to budge — even if it is dying of thirst.

Children aren’t much different. In fact, adults aren’t that much different. We are allergic to being pushed and bossed around, and it serves an important developmental purpose. How can we ever grow into independent adults if we let everyone push us around? Part of the human experience is finding and establishing our own voice, and we do this by pushing against anyone who threatens to boss us around — even if we need the boundaries.

So does this mean that you allow your daughter to quit dance? You are going to hate this answer, but: It depends.

Although I would love to tie an answer into a neat bow, the truth is that you have to weigh a couple of factors to find the right answer for your family. I encourage all parents to consider these questions when weighing a quitting situation:

  • What is compelling you to push her to continue? The money? The commitment? Not letting down the group? Fear that you will make her into a quitter? All of the above?
  • How miserable is she? For instance, does she get there and have a great time, or does she sulk and throw tantrums from start to finish?
  • Is she beginning to or already hating the activity?
  • Is the child’s resistance beginning to affect other parts of her life?
  • Is your relationship with your child suffering as a result of this activity?

I want to be clear with you on an important point: You may not be completely conscious of this, but many American parents are allergic to quitting. They’d rather raise a villain than a quitter. There are a million reasons for this, and many of them come from how our country was founded and our ideals. Quitting is for losers, and Americans don’t like losers. We like winners, and we want our children to follow suit.

But many parents are beginning to realize that all this focus on winning and resistance to quitting is costing our children their physical and mental health. Teachers, counselors, therapists and others who work with kids have been sounding the alarm for years. Anxiety, depression, isolation and perfectionism are at all-time highs for children, and they are breaking down under the weight of the pressure.

So, let’s walk this out a little. Your daughter began to dance at 5, and I am guessing it was probably because her friends were doing it, or you were trying to fill some hours in a dark winter. It was cute, fun and easy. Three years later, the bloom is off the rose. Dance is becoming less about play, and more about choreography, attention and hard work. The children are sorting into two main groups: Those who love the challenge and take it on, and those who come against the challenge and think, “This is not fun.” At first, we may think that the latter group is lazy or giving up, but isn’t it natural and good to realize what one prefers? Isn’t that part of life?

Additionally, did you think your daughter would dance forever? There are some people who have the talent and drive to continue such activities into adulthood and find success, but the real reason we value activities is so our children can try (and quit) different things. That’s what parents say to one another, but in reality, we are rumbling with anxiety under the surface.

So what should you do? Should you push?

Let’s take out the word “push.” It’s not a word that’s going to get you anywhere positive with your child. Instead, reframe this as “support.” Is there a way you can support your child to take on these challenges with determination and courage? Is there a way you can support your child through the natural feeling of wanting to quit when the going gets hard? Is there a way you can support your daughter’s desire to quit?

All of these options are on the table because it doesn’t really matter whether she dances. What matters is that you see this as an opportunity to support her in a clear-minded and compassionate manner.

Review the questions I listed and get honest with yourself. Once you understand your own heart, move forward with what is right for your daughter. Good luck.