Q: Our 11-year-old son seems to lose interest in sports, hobbies and other activities as soon as they get a bit challenging. He’ll excitedly start something new, only to lose interest a few months later. As a parent, I wonder when I’m supposed to make him stick with something through those challenging phases and when it is okay to allow him to stop and start activities like he does. We have always made him fulfill his commitment (he doesn’t stop a team midway through a season), but so far he then moves on to something new rather than working to get better at the first activity. What concerns me most is often when he stops, he is very down on himself, saying that he’s no good at “fill-in-the-blank,” when really he just needs to put a little more effort into whatever it is.
A: My first thought when I read your note was, “Wait, who doesn’t want to quit when going gets tough? Am I the only one?” It is an utterly human reaction to not enjoy the feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty. Even a whiff of challenge can make some people feel truly embarrassed. Add social, cultural and parental pressures, and you will find many children who don’t appear to stomach challenge very well.
I don’t know how long he has been wanting to quit new hobbies or sports, but it is common for tweens to feel hypersensitive to not doing well, or even perceiving that they’re not doing well. A tween’s brain is growing rapidly (about as rapidly as when he was a toddler), and this intensity can lead to a type of unwarranted narcissism. A tween will feel that the whole world is watching them flail and fail when, in reality, no one has noticed. Even “putting a little more effort in” can feel humiliating for the average tween, and it is maddening as you try to rationalize, cajole and convince your tween that they just need to give it a bit more time.
The good news is that this stage doesn’t last! The bad news is that navigating it can feel fraught and confusing. If you cannot use logic, what can you do? First, you have to believe that when he reports that he feels down on himself, this isn’t for attention or theater. Believe he is telling the truth and treat him accordingly. “Tony, it stinks to feel like you cannot do (fill in the blank). Everyone feels like this sometimes.” Affirming his emotions and listening is one of the most effective ways to reach a tween and, contrary to most thinking, it won’t grow his feels of inadequacy.
Next, pay attention to your son’s strengths. He actually tries different things (awesome) and finishes them, whether the season or the package of lessons (double-awesome). Rather than focusing on what he quits, turn your attention to how many different activities he has tried! The saying is actually, “A Jack of all trades is a master of none but oftentimes better than a master of one.” I’m not blowing smoke here: Willingness to try many activities and sticking with them until the end is a wonderful quality. Furthermore, why does an 11-year-old have to stick to anything? Isn’t childhood all about trying things? All the things? It’s a wonderful privilege for a child to try a variety of activities; try looking at your son through these lenses.
As for wanting him to give a bit more effort, there is a delicate balance between letting time do its work with his maturity, respecting his temperament and […]
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