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“Childhood is a time when kids are supposed to be trying out lots of things to see what they like,” says Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.


It couldn't have been an easy decision for Mark McMorris's parents. After all, no one wants to raise a quitter.

But when he was just a teenager, McMorris's father and mother, a provincial politician and a nurse, agreed to let him quit school so that he could dedicate himself to snowboarding (he was allowed to skip Grades 11 and 12 on the promise that he would eventually finish high school). The decision paid off last Sunday, when the 24-year-old Regina native won bronze in the men's snowboard slopestyle event at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, his second Olympic medal in a career packed with endorsement deals and snowboarding's top prizes.

While that's an extreme case, experts in building resiliency in children say that letting a child quit can actually be incredibly good for them.

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Every parent wants their children to have the grit to work through hardship rather than give up when things get difficult. But quitting activities is often essential for children, resiliency experts say: Refusing to let them do so can sometimes do more harm than good, damaging their self-esteem and dampening their willingness to try new things. The important thing is to know when to let a child quit.

"Building resilience is about creating opportunities for them to navigate to where they want to go and putting opportunities in front of them. But it's also about negotiating with them so that they can express some decision-making power," says Michael Ungar, a professor at Dalhousie University and Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience.

In other words, if you want to build your kids' resiliency, you need to give them the autonomy to bail on things sometimes.

The older a child is, the longer they should be able to persist in an activity before they are allowed to quit, Ungar says. For example, teenagers can and probably should put in an entire season with whatever sport team they've signed up for. When the season is over, they can negotiate with their parents about not returning.

When it comes to younger children, it is important that they be allowed to quit activities sooner rather than later – say, after a couple of weeks – as much as we might worry about instilling good habits right from the start.

"Childhood is a time when kids are supposed to be trying out lots of things to see what they like," says Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. "Letting kids quit is giving them not just licence to quit but licence to try things that are a little bit frightening for them, to try different things that they wouldn't naturally try."

Of course, that doesn't mean letting a child walk away just because something is difficult for them or for other considerations, such as a duty to a team or money spent on equipment.

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"I've asked my kids to see things out for the season," Lahey says.

Jennifer Esler's 14-year-old son has played many sports over the years, including speed skating, hockey and baseball. He's allowed to quit whenever it is time to sign up, but Esler, a communications manager in Edmonton, makes the terms of the negotiation very clear.

"I give him the option [to quit] at registration. 'And remember, this is a full-year commitment so if we register today, you have to do the entire season,'" she says.

Kids who have the perfectionist's habit of sulking when they aren't absolutely amazing at something right from the start, as some younger children often do, should not be allowed to quit, Ungar says.

"You want your child to be embarrassed about their failings," he says. "You want them to feel this thing of inadequacy, failure. These are good things for children to experience."

Similarly, don't allow kids who are a little nervous or timid when first trying new things to quit, says Catherine Pearlman, author of Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction.

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For Pearlman, there was no question of letting her daughter quit water polo three years ago, even though she is slightly anxious and was begging to never go back.

"If she's not pushed to continue, she will literally quit every single thing she's started," Pearlman says. "She has to be pushed through a little bit to get through to the other side of that fear. And then, if she's not interested, she can quit."

But making a child continue to do an activity they have tried enough to know they do not like, if not outright hate, isn't going to teach them any valuable lessons, Ungar says.

"If the experience is so damaging to their self-esteem, self-concept, if they really made an effort to try and they are out of their comfort zone, then there's not going to be much learning in it," he says.

For Gillian Burles, quitting is an essential skill to teach kids.

After driving her young son to a rink near their home in the Northwest Territories, she let him quit after five or six skating lessons once it became clear he didn't like it.

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"Our goal is to develop a functional human being who contributes to our society," Burles says. "Sometimes, in our adult lives, you look at a situation and go, 'I can keep banging my head against a wall or I can quit.'"

More importantly, she says, being permitted to quit activities after giving them an honest try means her son and her daughter will be free to eventually find the things they love and will dedicate themselves to.

"If they feel like they have to stay in an activity until the bitter end even though they absolutely hate it, they're not going to try new stuff," she says.

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