A mother pulled me aside after a lecture I'd given and asked if I would answer a question for her. "I feel like I'm caught in a bind with my daughter," she explained. "I enrolled her in an after school sports program that she said she wanted to sign up for. We're not even halfway through the semester though, and she's telling me she doesn't like it and wants to drop out. I'm confused. She's only six, and I hate to make her do something that she's really unhappy with, but at the same time I think she about the right age to start learning about commitment."
The question of commitment is one I hear frequently. Caring parents are often caught in this bind between listening to their child and responding to her distress in a compassionate way, and teaching her responsibility, follow-through and commitment. Having an understanding of your child's developmental capabilities can be helpful.
Until your child is about five or six years old, the idea of commitment should take lesser precedence than your child's distress in a particular situation. Children in this age group aren't developmentally ready to learn about the kind of long-term commitment that an after school activity represents. Thus, if your child is regularly unhappy in a particular activity and you feel that your child has had adequate time to adjust (four or five classes) it's important to respond to your child's feelings by taking them out of the class instead of trying to teach them about commitment.
Between the ages of five and nine or ten, children begin to develop an idea of what commitment means. In order for a child to fully commit to a class, he must have an understanding of time (a semester is long!) and an ability to weigh the length of the commitment with the pleasure he will receive. This doesn't happen all at once! It is a process that spans these years. For parents, it means compromise. I told the mother of the six-year-old, for example, that she should sit down with her child and really listen to what was going on. Recognition on the part of one's parent that the situation feels uncomfortable is particularly important for children. Oftentimes it is simply the acknowledgement of the child's negative feelings that will make the situation bearable for the remainder of the semester. In addition, I recommended that she ask her daughter if there was anything that would make the situation feel more comfortable. Sometimes this question leads to more information from the child about why they're unhappy, other times it empowers the child to take responsibility for turning the situation into something more positive. If the child is still unhappy in the class, Mom could compromise by saying "I hear that when you took on this commitment you didn't really realize what it would involve, and that you wouldn't like it. I believe it's important to keep our commitments, but I'm willing to compromise as well. I'd like you to give it a little longer (and here Mom should be specific about the number of times more she would like her child to attend in order to consider the commitment fulfilled), but if you decide at that point that you're really too unhappy we'll let you drop out." This kind of flexibility, compromise and understanding of the child will help the child of this age learn to think through commitments before money is spent and time is set aside. In addition, asking the child to stick with it for a few more times may, in fact, help her develop proficiency in the activity, feel better about herself, and thus be more willing to finish up. Sometimes a child's reluctance stems from her feelings of inadequacy - she may not be initially "good" at something, and in that case, giving it a little more time can help build her self-esteem. Bear in mind that this type of communication may have to occur numerous times during these years because this is the developmental stage at which the child is learning about commitment, and learning is a process, not a fait accompli.
Once a child is about ten, parents can begin to talk about commitment in the abstract sense. By this age, children have had enough experience with long term situations to be able to think through ahead of time whether making a commitment to an activity is worth the time, effort and money. They are also more developmentally capable of finding ways to "get through" an activity that they discover isn't to their liking halfway through. This is not to say, however, that you should stop listening if your child seems distressed. In fact, the same type of conversation that you would have with a five to ten year old should take place with older children as well. The difference is that when your child is older, she's more capable of handling boredom, mild discomfort, and even feelings of inadequacy - at least for short periods of time. For children older than age ten, then, commitments should be talked through ahead of time whenever possible. Parents can help children weigh their options and support them in making responsible decisions.
Factors that parents and older children should take into consideration and discuss openly are:
* The length of time of the commitment.
* Other activities and schoolwork and how those will fit in.
* The amount of money it will cost and whether the child is willing to be partially responsible. This is especially important with teenagers as they often have at least a small income from allowance and odd jobs and both can and should be required to use part of it for things they need and want.
* How the child will get to and from the activity and whether the travel time is also worth it.
* The parental expectation that the child will fulfill the commitment once it's made, even if it's mildly uncomfortable.
Keep in mind that if your child experiences depression, high anxiety, physical distress (such as throwing up), or other extremely negative emotions or behaviors, or if you feel that the commitment is damaging your child or his self-esteem you should remove him from the situation and find out what's going on - even if you need to call a professional counselor to help you with that dialogue.