How to know when it's okay to let your child drop an activity -- and when it's best to make her stick it out.
Playing tennis
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

My friend Jenny used to force her daughter to go to camp. Her daughter begged and cried to stay home, but was sent anyway. I thought this was wrong. She also forced her daughter to take piano lessons. And horseback riding.

A few years later, I read that Michelle Obama required her daughters, then ages 7 and 10, to take tennis lessons. Again, I bristled. But the gist of Mrs. Obama's argument was this: Sometimes in life you have to do things you don't like to do. And someday you may, in fact, need to be good at these things. As it turns out, many experts agree that it's fine to insist on certain activities, depending on your child's age and temperament, the activity itself, and your own motivation in wanting him to do it. "I believe in giving kids as much choice as possible. But they also need structure, a work ethic, and to focus their energy someplace positive," says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids. Even to a non-forcer like me, that philosophy makes sense. Consider this your guide to striking the right balance between pushing and giving in.

Decide whether your child is a little nervous -- or deeply anxious.

You can coax a worried child from the sidelines by cheering him on to take a reasonable risk. "Some kids resist new activities or challenges because they don't naturally enjoy going out of their comfort zone, as opposed to kids who like to rise to a challenge," says pediatrician and Parents advisor Ari Brown, M.D. "If your child isn't much of a risk-taker, at some point you have to push a little bit to help him." However, a child who won't even walk near the diving board is clearly not ready and should not be pushed. Similarly, if he's developed a fear of horses, it might be best to let him stop riding lessons; a few trips to a barn or a petting zoo could ease him into it at a later date.

Try getting to the bottom of the resistance. If your child wants to quit piano because he doesn't want to perform in the recital, or he wants to stop going to play practice now that he has a speaking part, try saying something like, "It sounds as if you're nervous. Let's talk about what's making you feel afraid." A discussion can help you pinpoint the fear and allows you to share knowledge that can alleviate it ("These horses are trained to be gentle with children"). "Kids can have an anxiety that is not based on the truth of the situation," says Dr. Berman. "Sometimes just letting them know the reality can really help."

Don't bribe, but try to make the activity fun.

While there may be parents who have produced an orchestra-worthy musician by paying their child to practice, Dr. Berman believes it sets up a bad dynamic whereby your child will start asking "What will you give me?" every time you want her to do something. If she doesn't like practicing the cello in her room alone, invite her to play in the kitchen while you cook dinner (earplugs can take the edge off if she's not yet Yo-Yo Ma). Or offer to film her practicing and e-mail the video to her faraway cousins. You might also suggest that she teach what she's learning to a sibling, a neighborhood friend, or even you.

Question your motives.

Are you hung up on the wrong particulars? Just because your child is big and muscular doesn't mean you should sign him up for peewee football against his will. "Not every kid is cut out to play a contact or aggressive sport like football or soccer," says Dr. Brown. "Pick a noncontact sport like baseball instead and you'll achieve a worthy goal: physical fitness."

Ask yourself whether an activity is developmentally appropriate. Yes, some children can ski at age 3 and love it, but the key word is some. If your child is fearful at 3, he may be happy to try it when he's 6. But if you force him as a 3-year-old, you may blow the chance that he'll like it later.

Think about whose passion this really is. Pam Fullerton, of Newburyport, Massachusetts, played team sports as a child and rowed crew in college. So she very much wanted her son, Gordon, to play an organized sport. "When he was 7, I pushed baseball and soccer on him, and he was miserable. I wished he were more interested in team sports, but as it turns out he found a totally different outlet for his energy: theater. He has performed in school plays and also in community theater and he's very happy with that. Ultimately, his happiness makes me happy too."

Look for red flags.

There are certain signs that an activity may be a lost cause, so ask yourself the following questions. Does your child consistently steer clear of the ball and the other players? Has she ever faked an injury? Is she resistant to practicing on her own, or does she complain constantly when she's reminded to practice? Can you get through a discussion about the activity without it leading to whining or some kind of conflict? And perhaps most important, does the activity seem to build your child's self-confidence -- or does it tear it down?

Let your child be heard.

Forcing doesn't feel so much like force when there are choices embedded within the activity. So if it's music you're encouraging, let your child pick the instrument (within reason -- if you live in an apartment, drums may not be an option; if you're on a budget, a harp might be out at the moment). Or ask if it would be more fun if he could take a group lesson with a friend or two. "Include your child in the process," Dr. Berman says. "Your goal is to help him find something he will love." If he balks once the agreed-upon activity is underway, hear him out, tell him he needs to complete the lessons or session for which you've paid, and assure him that when it's over, he can try something else. Think of it all as a journey to give your child experience and proficiency in different areas on the way to finding his passions.

Two Things You Should Force

These extracurriculars should make it onto your priority list, simply because they are good for every child's health and emotional well-being.

1. Physical activity It doesn't have to be an organized sport, and it should never be brought up with words like fat, thin, overweight, or out of shape. (Use healthy and strong instead.) But all kids should be active every day. Ask your child if she wants to take an after-dinner family walk. Maybe she'd like to invite a friend along for a bike ride. Gather up a group of kids at the park and bring a ball to kick around, or start a massive game of hide-and-seek. And remember, children are almost always motivated when parents participate, so get out there right alongside them.

2. Swim lessons These are critical, particularly if you spend a lot of time near water. Jenifer B. Silverman, of New York City, signed up her two children for swim lessons. Her 5-year-old son screamed through every lesson for about four months straight. "If it had been a different activity I may have backed down, but knowing how to swim could save his life," she says. "Finally, something clicked and he now really enjoys swimming." Find a swim instructor who works well with your child's personality, and avoid those who literally throw children into the pool or seem to engage in techniques that involve crying. Your child should be comfortable and, for beginners, it should be okay for you to be in the water with him or right at the edge of the pool, says Dr. Jenn Berman.

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Parents magazine.

Parents Magazine