Can a 5 1/2 year-old quit a sport? You betcha

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 2, 2009 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

My son is 5 1/2 years old. For his entire life he has been painfully self-aware and unable to join activities right from the start. He has voiced being nervous (his word) of doing things wrong, not knowing the other kids, having someone laugh at him. About 50% of the time he will eventually join but not without complete involvement from me or his dad (encouraging him, giving an ultimatum, begging).

Once he joins, he is perfectly fine and in fact goes on and on about what a great time he is having. His developmental skills are average to above average for his age....I don't believe it is a situation of fearing physical harm, not knowing rules or questioning his skill. I spoke with his pre-school teacher last year to understand if she saw the same things but she told me he is the leader in the class and the first to volunteer for things. I can't figure out the best approach to get over this.

Right now he is signed up for town soccer. ...On the first day, he cried and begged me to "sign out of soccer". I convinced him to go to the field, meet the coach, and see what happens. He stayed on the sidelines the whole time. By the way, he was the only kid out of about 50 who did this. The coach was terrific. No pressure but would check in from time to time to see if he wanted to join the rest of the kids. By the end of the session, my son had his uniform on, was so excited and told me that next week he will be able to do it. Later that day, I asked if he was still nervous about soccer and he told me, "No, it is all over." Well, 2 days before the next session, he again asks to "sign out of soccer," he can't do it.

I want this to be fun. I want him to meet new kids in our town and make friends. He said he wanted to sign up, we paid money for him to participate. I am trying to balance my need to teach a lesson about commitment against his fears. I am really struggling because once he gets on the field he always has a great time. My feeling now is to walk away from this and try again in the spring when he knows more of the kids.

What is the best way to handle this?

From: Me, Hingham

Dear Me,

First of all, as I wrote only three days ago, some kids are slow to warm up. He sounds like he fits this category perfectly.

Secondly, he is too young to learn any "lessons about commitment" from this. You said you want this to be fun and it should be. Would I let him "sign out"? You betcha. And not in a punitive way, either. The whole point of these activities is to be able to try out a bunch of them and see which ones you really like. That means some things don't get repeated and, yes, some even get dropped. I would tell him simply, "If you want to stop soccer, that's OK. You can try it again some other time."

But the next time he wants to sign up for something -- anything -- I would remind him of his previous experiences, and not just the part where "you always have fun once you ..." Remind him of what happens first: "You know how last time you wanted to sign up for soccer and then you wanted to sign out of it? Can you tell me why you changed your mind?" "Why do you think it will be different this time?" And if there is a time when he stayed with it, "What made it OK that time? Was it the sport? The kids? The coach? Was it that once you tried it, you saw you could be good? Was it that you practiced at home with dad first?" (Don't offer all those choices at once; that would be over-whelming.)

What you want to do is help him to label and identify the feelings he has, and then label and identify and replicate the coping mechanisms that worked for him. This is a process. It will take time and patience but -- I speak from experience -- it will pay off.

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8 comments so far...
  1. Wow, I strongly disagree with Barbara, and I don't usually. Your son sounds very similar to mine. In general, we signed up for very few activities compared to everyone else in our community, but when we signed up for something, we would stick it out until he was comfortable. When we signed up for KG soccer, he didn't participate for 3 or 4 classes. We would watch on the sidelines. I would talk about what the kids were doing and how he would be able to do it too. We would get there early. Walking in late is always hard for the slow to warm up. It sounds like your son can do this, since he was excited by the end of the first class.

    And yes, I believe a 5 1/2 year old can drop out of soccer, but dropping out after 1 class is not giving it a fair shot, unless there was something egregiously wrong. (Mean coach, mean kids, etc.)

    I do agree that talking about previous experiences and how he felt and handled it will help him learn how to cope.

    Posted by Someone October 2, 09 08:06 AM
  1. I think it's OK to let him quit, but since he's the one who asked to do it, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect him to give it a real try. I think that before you let him quit, it's worth having the conversation about why he changed his mind from being willing to try to wanting to quit - is it that he doesn't know the skills, doesn't know anyone on the team, doesn't like the equipment (my daughter hated the shin guards that were handed out; we had to purchase a different pair for her)? If there's something that's fixable, it's worth trying to fix it. Just like a child can't know from looking at a food that they don't like it, they can't know from watching one practice that they don't like soccer.

    Posted by akmom October 2, 09 08:45 AM
  1. I think it is worth trying to work with him through his fears/anxiety, kindly and respectfully. As someone who is a bit slow to warm up too, I can be excited about doing something new, but when it comes time to actually do it, suddenly it seems overwhelming and I can seize up and say "I don't want to do this." But, as an adult, I push through that and do it, in spite of my anxiety about it. Once I am over the initial uncertainty of a new thing, I enjoy it and I am proud of myself for jumping in and doing it. I would think that actually letting him quit before he starts would really create an emotional barrier to doing the next thing because he wouldn't be building up the experience of getting over that initial hurdle of fear/anxiety and it would reinforce instead that he isn't capable of doing it. He needs an sympathetic, patient adult to have faith in him and help him to overcome his anxiety/fears.

    Posted by justme October 2, 09 10:09 AM
  1. I sort of agree with both sides. Kids should realize that they need to keep commitments. My son begged to take swimming lessons at age 4. The instructor intimidated him however, and the water was cold. I did not make him go in, but I made him get suited up and sit on the side of the pool for every lesson. Finally, the last lesson, he got in. We then let swimming go for a few years and tried again, and this time, he was ready, got right in, had a great time. It was a good compromise between not traumatizing him by forcing him into the water, but making him realize that he needed to follow through.

    At the same time, I really get frustrated with the number of people who feel the HAVE to force their kids into sports or else. There are so many other things kids can do - music, theater, biking with the family, arts, science, etc. Why force all kids into the sports mold?

    Posted by BMS October 2, 09 11:04 AM
  1. He is F - I - V - E. He wants to sign out, let him. I have twins, my daughter was ready to go off to activities at 3 1/2. My son, her twin, wasn't ready until he was 7. It's not a big deal... Nothing remotely serious on any level - socialization, skill, gamesmanship - is going to happen in soccer at this age anyway.

    Posted by Kim October 2, 09 02:28 PM
  1. I agree with #1 and #3. Since the child has expressed a willingness to join in but just can't seem to get himself over that first hurdle, the parents need to help him learn how to overcome the initial anxiety and plunge in or this is going to be an ongoing issue. My son had the same problem and hovered on the sidelines at kindergarten soccer. After two weeks of this, my husband promised to buy him a gatoraid on the way home if he would participate - it did the trick. He ran onto the field and never looked back. In a few minutes I'm going to leave to take him to his fifth grade soccer game where he is an enthusiastic player. For us it was a simple solution, a gatoraid bribe, and it might not be as simple for you. Are there any kids in the group that your son knows? Perhaps you could have their parents ask their child to invite your son on to the field and inform the coach that the two will be buddies during the drills. Note that I am NOT saying that one should force a child who clearly has no interest or can't stop sobbing. But if a child says he wants to go and will sit on the sidelines and you think he'll be okay once he gets in there, then keep trying to find a way to get him over the hurdle.

    Posted by SoSoSoccerMom October 2, 09 04:30 PM
  1. You're all wet on this one, Barbara. I don't see any benefit from allowing him to drop out, and I don't see any harm that can come from making him stick with it for the season. If he doesn't want to sign up again next season, fine.

    And I disagree that a 5 1/2 year old can't learn "lessons about commitment." A child much younger than that can certainly at least learn what your expectations are and what he has to do to meet them.

    Posted by geocool October 6, 09 11:57 AM
  1. My six year old daughter told me the first soccer game of the season that she hated it and wanted to go home, cried, would not let go of me, would not play, etc. This was after two practices where she participated and had a good time, so it came as a surprise! When she said she wanted to quit, I told her she couldn't quit something she wasn't doing. That if after playing some soccer, she decided she didn't like it, we could talk about quitting, but not until then. I also told her that I would be a bad mom if I let her quit when something was challenging for her, or scary and I would work with her to figure out how to make it less scary but that we were not going home.

    Long story short, she got into the last fifteen minutes of the game, and came out glowing, not because she played well, but I'm sure because she accomplished the difficult for her task of getting in the game. I am so glad I persisted!

    And later that day, I asked her what she thought would have happened if I had taken her home when she asked, and she pretended to burst into tears: that she would have been sad.

    My policy with her has always been that she must dress for and show up for every activity, and the participation is up to her.

    I think sometimes allowing a child to quit an activity is totally fine, but not in the scenario in this letter!

    Posted by kfsomer October 7, 09 11:26 AM
 
8 comments so far...
  1. Wow, I strongly disagree with Barbara, and I don't usually. Your son sounds very similar to mine. In general, we signed up for very few activities compared to everyone else in our community, but when we signed up for something, we would stick it out until he was comfortable. When we signed up for KG soccer, he didn't participate for 3 or 4 classes. We would watch on the sidelines. I would talk about what the kids were doing and how he would be able to do it too. We would get there early. Walking in late is always hard for the slow to warm up. It sounds like your son can do this, since he was excited by the end of the first class.

    And yes, I believe a 5 1/2 year old can drop out of soccer, but dropping out after 1 class is not giving it a fair shot, unless there was something egregiously wrong. (Mean coach, mean kids, etc.)

    I do agree that talking about previous experiences and how he felt and handled it will help him learn how to cope.

    Posted by Someone October 2, 09 08:06 AM
  1. I think it's OK to let him quit, but since he's the one who asked to do it, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect him to give it a real try. I think that before you let him quit, it's worth having the conversation about why he changed his mind from being willing to try to wanting to quit - is it that he doesn't know the skills, doesn't know anyone on the team, doesn't like the equipment (my daughter hated the shin guards that were handed out; we had to purchase a different pair for her)? If there's something that's fixable, it's worth trying to fix it. Just like a child can't know from looking at a food that they don't like it, they can't know from watching one practice that they don't like soccer.

    Posted by akmom October 2, 09 08:45 AM
  1. I think it is worth trying to work with him through his fears/anxiety, kindly and respectfully. As someone who is a bit slow to warm up too, I can be excited about doing something new, but when it comes time to actually do it, suddenly it seems overwhelming and I can seize up and say "I don't want to do this." But, as an adult, I push through that and do it, in spite of my anxiety about it. Once I am over the initial uncertainty of a new thing, I enjoy it and I am proud of myself for jumping in and doing it. I would think that actually letting him quit before he starts would really create an emotional barrier to doing the next thing because he wouldn't be building up the experience of getting over that initial hurdle of fear/anxiety and it would reinforce instead that he isn't capable of doing it. He needs an sympathetic, patient adult to have faith in him and help him to overcome his anxiety/fears.

    Posted by justme October 2, 09 10:09 AM
  1. I sort of agree with both sides. Kids should realize that they need to keep commitments. My son begged to take swimming lessons at age 4. The instructor intimidated him however, and the water was cold. I did not make him go in, but I made him get suited up and sit on the side of the pool for every lesson. Finally, the last lesson, he got in. We then let swimming go for a few years and tried again, and this time, he was ready, got right in, had a great time. It was a good compromise between not traumatizing him by forcing him into the water, but making him realize that he needed to follow through.

    At the same time, I really get frustrated with the number of people who feel the HAVE to force their kids into sports or else. There are so many other things kids can do - music, theater, biking with the family, arts, science, etc. Why force all kids into the sports mold?

    Posted by BMS October 2, 09 11:04 AM
  1. He is F - I - V - E. He wants to sign out, let him. I have twins, my daughter was ready to go off to activities at 3 1/2. My son, her twin, wasn't ready until he was 7. It's not a big deal... Nothing remotely serious on any level - socialization, skill, gamesmanship - is going to happen in soccer at this age anyway.

    Posted by Kim October 2, 09 02:28 PM
  1. I agree with #1 and #3. Since the child has expressed a willingness to join in but just can't seem to get himself over that first hurdle, the parents need to help him learn how to overcome the initial anxiety and plunge in or this is going to be an ongoing issue. My son had the same problem and hovered on the sidelines at kindergarten soccer. After two weeks of this, my husband promised to buy him a gatoraid on the way home if he would participate - it did the trick. He ran onto the field and never looked back. In a few minutes I'm going to leave to take him to his fifth grade soccer game where he is an enthusiastic player. For us it was a simple solution, a gatoraid bribe, and it might not be as simple for you. Are there any kids in the group that your son knows? Perhaps you could have their parents ask their child to invite your son on to the field and inform the coach that the two will be buddies during the drills. Note that I am NOT saying that one should force a child who clearly has no interest or can't stop sobbing. But if a child says he wants to go and will sit on the sidelines and you think he'll be okay once he gets in there, then keep trying to find a way to get him over the hurdle.

    Posted by SoSoSoccerMom October 2, 09 04:30 PM
  1. You're all wet on this one, Barbara. I don't see any benefit from allowing him to drop out, and I don't see any harm that can come from making him stick with it for the season. If he doesn't want to sign up again next season, fine.

    And I disagree that a 5 1/2 year old can't learn "lessons about commitment." A child much younger than that can certainly at least learn what your expectations are and what he has to do to meet them.

    Posted by geocool October 6, 09 11:57 AM
  1. My six year old daughter told me the first soccer game of the season that she hated it and wanted to go home, cried, would not let go of me, would not play, etc. This was after two practices where she participated and had a good time, so it came as a surprise! When she said she wanted to quit, I told her she couldn't quit something she wasn't doing. That if after playing some soccer, she decided she didn't like it, we could talk about quitting, but not until then. I also told her that I would be a bad mom if I let her quit when something was challenging for her, or scary and I would work with her to figure out how to make it less scary but that we were not going home.

    Long story short, she got into the last fifteen minutes of the game, and came out glowing, not because she played well, but I'm sure because she accomplished the difficult for her task of getting in the game. I am so glad I persisted!

    And later that day, I asked her what she thought would have happened if I had taken her home when she asked, and she pretended to burst into tears: that she would have been sad.

    My policy with her has always been that she must dress for and show up for every activity, and the participation is up to her.

    I think sometimes allowing a child to quit an activity is totally fine, but not in the scenario in this letter!

    Posted by kfsomer October 7, 09 11:26 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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