Thursday, April 14, 2011

To quit or not to quit?

I've been cogitating on the question: should parents/teachers should take a stand on the issue of quitting?

Should we, as adults, allow kids to quit doing some activity whenever they feel they've had enough? Or should we demand that they follow through on all commitments, no matter what?

The opinions I've been hearing are very black-and-white: either kids should always be expected to follow through on every activity they start, or they should never ever have to do something they have decided they don't want to do.

I come down somewhere in the middle, I think. While I'm an advocate for kids doing those things that draw out their passions and strengths, and not forcing them to do things they just don't feel motivated to do, I think there are two pitfalls to staying out of their decisions to quit.

1. When the decision to quit lets others down. If my daughter decided right now that she didn't want to be in her ballet school's Spring recital, there would be some havoc,with re-choreographing and rehearsing without her. Also, in those pieces where there are pairs who work together, her quitting would likely cut her partner from the show. I think you can apply this to sports as well. Consideration for those left behind is a good responsibility to teach. If a kid really wants to quit, he/she needs to plan ahead to make sure she's not letting people down.

2. I think we are always alert to kids quitting out of fear, and we tend to want them to follow through on any commitment, regardless of their reasoning. Fear of failing, fear of embarrassment or humiliation, fear of losing are very strong in kids. If the motivation to succeed doesn't outpace the fear of failure, it's easy to see why a kid would want to quit, and I understand those who argue for honoring that desire. But I see a problem when it comes to how our society deals with frustration and struggle.

In previous posts, I've discussed the workings of the brain when struggling against the edges of one's ability. At the moment when frustration is greatest, when we feel ourselves on the edge of failing and out-of-control, that is when our neurons are being wrapped in myelin, the insulation that makes our neural circuits fire stronger and faster. This struggle is not generally recognized for what it is; since it is unpleasant, it's confused with failure and the easiest thing to do -- and the thing that seems most logical -- is to stop.

We need to understand -- parents, teachers, students -- what struggle means, and how it relates to learning. We can learn ourselves, and then teach our kids, the neurology of frustration and struggle. We can model it, demonstrate it, and insist that our students experience it. Kids need a data base of experiences where they have struggled, worked through the struggle, and gained skills they didn't have before, and didn't even know they could acquire.

But we need to be super motivated if we are to go through this struggle. I can't tell you how astonished I was when I learned, through deep practice over a period of two or three months, a skill on the violin I had previously decided was beyond me. If we impress ourselves with what we can do, we are more likely to charge ahead and find out what else is in store for us.

So as adults we need to strike a balance. If a kid wants something badly, maybe we need to educate him or her as to what it will mean to seek mastery. Or maybe the student will decide that the end result isn't worth the struggle. I don't have a neat solution for how to decide it. Most of the time I fall on the side of those who honor a student's ability to decide for him or herself. If any of my readers can offer a handy guideline on this, please comment!