Why I Don’t Force My Kids To Do Stuff

Good intentions don't really count for much.

by Sarah Bregel
Originally Published: 

Recently, I got to cruising the comments on an Internet thread, as one does from time to time. A worried mom was venting about how her 5-year-old acted out every time it was time for violin practice. No matter what she tried — talking calmly, threatening punishment, or even bribing her kid to practice for just a few minutes a day — the child kicked and screamed and became completely unreasonable.

I kept scrolling through the thread, hoping there was some good advice for the confused and hopeless parent who seemed desperate for a solution. It contained over 100 comments, from suggestions on how to get the child more interested to how to calm her down long enough to practice her craft.

“Start at a different time of day,” one commenter wrote. “Take her out for a special treat every time she gets through it with no tears.”

The list went on and on, with dozens of well-intentioned ideas. But as I scrolled through, I felt pretty certain that none of them were really going to work.

As any parent who’s ever tried to get their kid to do something they genuinely hate knows, it’s always going to be an uphill battle. Kids are generally honest about their feelings and if they really don’t like something, you’re going to know about it. The way they express themselves won’t always be pretty, but chances are, they will keep it real, especially when they’re unhappy.

But regardless of how they choose to express themselves, shouldn’t our kids have some choices in how they actually spend their time? Call me a free-range, hippie mom all you want, but I think a bit of personal choice is pretty damn important.

My suggestion, had I left one, would’ve been simple: Let her quit! But because the mother was clear about wanting her daughter to stick it out, I decided not to comment. Aside from probably offending the mom, who I’m sure was trying to do something really wonderful for her kid by giving her the opportunity to learn a musical instrument, I figured I’d be met with a slew of comments about how harmful it is to let our kids become quitters at the slightest hint of resistance.

Instead of starting an Internet debate, I closed the tab and moved along.

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder why everyone seemed totally on board with making choices about what hobbies, crafts, sports, and interests our children should have without their consent — even to the point of using bribes and threats as the fix rather than just opting out.

Is this just part of our new world of over-scheduled kids that we believe they need to be constantly occupied with structure and lessons in order to live fulfilled lives? Do we want them to engage in activities and be one step ahead (of whatever game we’re all playing) so badly that we just put them in activities they don’t actually have any desire to do? Because to me, that seems like a hell of a lot of extra cash, driving time, and effort to spend, only to drag miserable kids around town to their various lessons.

And what’s the point of forcing a kid to do something they clearly show no interest in, anyway? It seems to me that the best way to get a kid to do something is to let them choose something they’ll actually enjoy. Who cares if it’s art or karate or something really weird and obscure like, I don’t know, stamp collecting meetings? Sure, maybe there are some really incredible things about learning the violin that the “quitters” of the world won’t get the chance to experience. Maybe they won’t be first chair in their high school orchestra and play in the New York Symphony Orchestra, after all. But if the kid hates it all that much, my guess is he was never going to do either of those things, anyway.

To really be good at something — to thrive and love your craft, no matter what it is — is pretty damn important; and you can’t force that. Passion is essential, and it can’t be bought or forced at age 5, 15, or even 50. Which is why my own daughter has exactly one activity: dance. And I have never once had to force her to attend her dozens of rehearsals. Why? Because she loves the hell out of it, and while I never imagined I’d be a dance mom, here I am, and happy to be one because it makes my kid light up.

I totally get that we all want our kids to succeed and become motivated individuals. I also get that sometimes, learning to do things we don’t actually want to do is part of that process. That’s why my kids do chores, like walking the dog and picking up his hot, stinky poop. They tidy their rooms and put away the laundry. Both kids help set the table and clear it each night. Even my 2-year-old knows how to scrape his dinner plate and help unload the dishwasher. They aren’t always excited to help out, but those things are part of being a family and the sooner they get used to everyday life tasks, the more comfortable they’ll be with what it takes to run a household one day.

But isn’t figuring out the things that you like (not just the things that your school or your parents told you to like) a pretty big part in discovering who you are and what makes you you? If we keep making these decisions for our kids, how will they ever know themselves when it’s time to go to college, get a job, and find themselves? It seems to me it takes our youth a lot of time to do just that these days.

Maybe, in part, it’s because they’ve never been allowed to make their own choices — until it was time to be an adult who is supposed to know which direction to go. Maybe it’s because they’ve been busy taking tests and running from soccer practice to piano lessons to know what they really want out of life.

These days, we put so much pressure on filling our kids’ schedules and getting them to perform how we want them to, because the rat race starts early. We, as parents, have absorbed this and we’re terrified of failure. But what about failing our kids by completely forgetting to factor in their personal choice and their genuine passions? If we are so intent on making our kids do things because we think they’ll be better for it in the long run, we might just raise some school-smart kids and half-way decent violin players. Only they won’t have the slightest idea who they really are, because it’s all been orchestrated (pun intended) for them.

Even if they never pick up an instrument or touch a soccer ball, I’m down with letting my kids do, play, or participate in whatever the hell they want to — and nothing more. I’ll never teach them they have to swing a bat or carry a tune or follow the damn leader. Because although I have many important jobs as a mother, deciding who my kids will be is not one of them.

I’ll nurture the hell out of their passions. I’ll encourage them to keep going when the going gets tough. But I’ll never force my kids to be people they are not by adding a list of meaningless hobbies to their repertoire. Knowing yourself is way more valuable — to any child, adult, instructor or employer — and that’s simply worth more than a line on a resume.

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