How to Stop Kids From Quitting (When They Shouldn’t)

Kids get embarrassed over their mistakes, so they quit. Prepare them for the challenges of learning so they succeed even when it’s hard.

by Matthew Utley

Quitting relieves stress. That’s why dogs do it. That’s why adults do it. That’s why you’re tempted to do it every damn day. And quitting can be good; it’s a means of stepping out of a vicious cycle. Unfortunately, for children, it’s more often a means of pulling the plug on the learning process, which necessitates failure and stress. When kids quit, they hurt themselves and establish a habit likely to be damaging later in life. To stop a kid from quitting is to save them from going bump, bump, bump down an initially slippery and ultimately gravely slope.

“If kids get into a syndrome of quitting then it can take over their lives,” says Dr. Larry Koenig, author of Smart Discipline. “Once you quit the first time, it’s easier to quit a second time and then a third time, and a fourth time. Soon whenever the going gets tough you just quit, because quitting feels good. It’s an instant release of stress.”

That stress can come from a lot of places. Kids who don’t progress as quickly as they want, or don’t seem to progress at all, won’t want to keep trying. Team sports, in particular, come with frustrations. Disappointing teammates or being scolded by a coach can make a child feel isolated or bullied. Bullying itself makes a kid want to give up to escape the torment. Sometimes it’s simply realizing that trying hard isn’t enough to meet one’s own standards of success. All of these are stressful lessons for children to learn, particularly when they seem to all happen at once.

But kids need to know that though these challenges might be inevitable, they are not insurmountable. Kids need to learn that their frustrations are part of a shared experience. In a sense, teaching a kid to avoid quitting is teaching a kid to feel less exceptional (about the bad stuff).

“The learning curve is a very real phenomenon,” he explains. “It means when you start learning something, you aren’t going to know how to do it. It’s going to be hard, you’re going to make mistakes, and it’s not going to feel good. You are going to look at other kids who are learning the same thing and they are going to be doing better than you are, and you are going to think you can’t do it. But nothing is further from the truth.”

One of the best ways to prepare a child for this is to warn them about it. “Sit down and discuss the learning curve with your child beforehand, before any commitments are made. Explain the challenges and the difficulties, and set expectations,” says Dr. Koenig. “Help them understand that you have to go through it to get through to the other side – that is the nature of learning. This is a fine line because you don’t want to discourage the kid from even trying, but it is important that they understand being good at something requires a commitment to get through the learning curve.”

This doesn’t erase the stress, but it does start a conversation that allows kids and parents together to identify specific problems and find appropriate solutions. It might be as easy as reminding the child that they said they would try. Sometimes it requires more. If a student is feeling discouraged by a teacher, for example, tutoring can help. “The research says when children go into tutoring, not only do they do better academically, but their self-esteem goes up,” explains Koenig.

Above all, says Koenig, have empathy. Showing frustration when a kid wants to quit – even something as small as an exasperated “I knew you’d quit!” – can instill in the child the belief that he or she is a quitter. That belief can set the pattern of behavior and validate the decision to give up.

“We as human beings act according to our beliefs,” explains Koenig. “And we are very consistent with acting according to our beliefs.” If the biggest belief a child absorbs is that learning new things requires work, and that work is worth doing when there’s something on the other side worth moving toward, well, that’s pretty good. Accepting that things aren’t going to be fun all the time but are worth doing anyway is a big step toward maturity.