Ep. 85b – Dr. Christine Koh – When Is It Kind To Let Our Kids Quit?
It’s a known fact – hobbies make life happier!
So, whether it’s music, sports, arts, or otherwise, of course, we want our kids to find passions that fuel their creativity and enjoyment.
However, when what should be ‘fun’ starts to feel like ‘work’, and our kids no longer want to practice or pursue a hobby, when do we push them to stick with it and when do we allow them to throw in the towel?
Join our guest Dr. Christine Koh for her insights on When It Is Kind To Let Kids Quit – and when is it NOT!
Christine KohDr. Christine Koh is a Harvard-trained brain scientist turned multimedia creative and entrepreneur on a mission to help people edit the unnecessary from their life.
She’s the director of Women Online (a communications firm that specializes in using social media for good), founder and editor of lifestyle blog Boston Mamas, host of the Edit Your Life Show podcast, co-author of Minimalist Parenting (a book to help parents enjoy family life more by doing less), and designer for Brave New World Designs (a stylish, advocacy-oriented design collection).
Her writing is featured in The New York Times, Redbook, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, Woman’s Day, and more. She creates content and models with her own life and practices the art of living healthier, happier, and with elevated purpose and intention.
And she is the proud parent of two lovely daughters.
Ep. 85b – Dr. Christine Koh – When Is It Kind To Let Our Kids Quit?
Rachel Cram – Christine, thanks for being back for another question.
Dr. Christine Koh – Thank you for having me.
RC – Okay. I’m going to jump right in. This is a question from a parent wanting to know about letting kids quit. And I found it very interesting how she came to this question from listening to your episode.
She says, “I listened to the episode with Dr. Koh, and I was so impressed by her courage to make such a significant and meaningful life change. And then I started thinking about how I think about change for myself and for my kids. And now I have a question. What is the difference between editing and quitting?”
(So she goes on to explain this a bit more.)
“I started piano lessons when I was four years old and I played until I completed my grade ten RCM exam with a gold.”
(which is pretty amazing. I actually asked Roy, what is an RCM?)
CK – Royal Conservatory. Um hum
RC – Exactly? And he said, “Grade ten is like the pinnacle and gold is amazing.”
So she says, “I played piano until I got her RCM gold. I never questioned this,” she says. “Most of my friends’ parents expected the same of them in their own instruments. My three children, ten, eight and four are all in music lessons. On days when they complain and we argue about practicing there is so much stress between my partner and I. I don’t think quitting is an option and he thinks it is. I feel like my role as a parent is to encourage my kids’ learning and talents for their future even when they don’t feel like practicing. And then I listened to this episode and now I’m not so sure. I’d love to hear what Dr. Koh has to say because I think she’ll understand where I’m coming from.”
RC – So do you understand where she’s coming from?
CK – Oh my goodness. I feel like your listeners know me.
RC – Obviously, they do too, because a lot of questions are coming in.
CK – 100%. Well, first of all, congratulations on the RCM ten gold, because that is I did not grow up in that system, but I did do my PhD in Canada and worked with a number of pianists in my lab, because I was doing experiments on trained pianists. Anyway, I also feel you and understand you because among the things I did, I did music for a long time and I was eventually what you might call a semi professional violinist. I played for over 20 years. I started in third grade and worked all the way up. Did solo college recitals. I actually played for the city orchestra and was part of a union. I mean, in it. 2 to 3 hours rehearsing every day, that kind of thing. Anyways…
RC – Did your parents have to nag you to practice?
CK – Well, there was some of that. I mean, there is some interesting back story because as a child of immigrants, my mom was very passionate about music. My dad thought it was frivolous and a waste of money. So I entered through the public school system in third grade, and they had free lessons and a discounted program to rent.
RC – Can I just interject here for a second? I know this moment is going to pass and we won’t dwell on this because it’s not part of the question, but I just want to mention, had music not been available through your public school, you would not have had access to music education and playing an instrument. Basically, that’s what you’re saying.
CK – Yes.
RC – Humm. I just wanted to note that. But keep going with where you were going with this parent’s question.
CK – Okay. So the first thing I want to say, though, is that, and this is a little tough, I’m not trying to cop out, but with kids of those different ages, the answer’s just going to not be the same. I mean, those kids are in very different developmental positions. And so that’s just one thing to keep in mind.
RC – You mean, with her three kids, one being ten, one being eight, one being four? Is that what you’re saying?
CK – Yeah. Four’s pretty little. Four is real different from ten. And as far as the threshold to tolerate practice, it’s going to be real different. So if I let’s see, I was eight when I started, so I would align with the middle child and I almost quit when I was ten. So that’s the framework from which I can address this question.
So I think that one thing I always think about in my own parenting and try to encourage other people to do is to consider ‘what of my own baggage am I bringing to the table and perhaps impressing on my own children?’
RC – Okay, that’s a huge question.
CK – It’s a huge question. And I’m not saying this person is doing this, but I could imagine I mean, it would have been very reasonable for me to feel like this as a parent to say, “Well, I was forced to do all this practice and I didn’t give up, so my kids shouldn’t give up either.”
Totally reasonable reaction that is very much rooted in your own history and whatever happened to you. So I think the thing to ask is, “Are you seeing moments where they are experiencing joy with music?”
And here the example’s music. It could be anything.
RC – Soccer.
CK – It could be soccer. It could be, yeah. It could be a million things. Whatever they’re doing recreationally. Especially if you’re paying for it too. Because if you’re paying for it, presumably there should be some joy attached to it. Right?
So I would ask myself; one, are they experiencing moments of joy? Yes, of course there’s going to be frustration in anything challenging that you pursue. But are they, do I see some glimmers there? And I’ll come back to why that’s important in a second.
And then second, is it reasonable for them developmentally and also just as who they are? Like what their attention span is like? And I said, ‘yes, things will be different for a four year old versus a ten year old.’
But maybe it’s the ten year old who might just not have the attention span for a full hour lesson. Maybe there’s a compromise where you back it down to a half hour lesson to make it more reasonable for what they can tolerate and handle based on who they are, how they process information.
So let me touch back on the joy part, because I think that’s really important and also caveat that I don’t want to unreasonably tether joy to continuing with something if you don’t like it.
RC – The ‘joy part’ can be misleading? Determining that?
CK – Yeah
RC – Why?
CK – Well, when kids are under stress, and I’m thinking specifically if there’s any sort of adverse childhood experiences at play or even just as a general response to stress or way to mitigate stress, joyful things in their lives, hobbies, are so important to helping them thrive and become kids who care about stuff.
And so in my situation, I started violin in the third grade. By fifth grade, I wanted to quit because many of my friends were doing chorus. That was the last year of elementary school, then you move on to middle school. So most of my cohort with whom I wanted to fit in, they were moving on to chorus. And also I felt like I couldn’t get to the next level because my dad didn’t believe in music as something you funnel money into. And so he didn’t want to pay for private lessons, even though my public school teachers had said, “You know, she’s pretty good. Like I think if you gave her private lessons, she could do really well.”
So my mom and I had a huge blowout about it. I think it’s the only conflict I actually remember having with her because young Asian children classically don’t do that. You don’t defy your parents. You don’t talk back.
RC – Christine, can I just clarify? You wanted to quit. You wanted to be done with the violin, and your Mom wanted you to keep going?
CK – Yeah! I was really firm. And I do think that my mom saw not only some natural talent in me, but she also saw that it made me happy. It did make me happy. And I can’t remember if she offered a compromise, but I think we agreed to give it a try for a year or whatever, and that she would find a way to get me private lessons. She had to sneak behind my dad’s back to do this.
RC – Wow.
CK – And she did. And once I started those lessons and took off, I found incredible joy in this hobby. And I later did say, I had the presence of mind to say, “Oh, mom, you were right. I really love this.”
So I can’t promise that this would happen. But I do want to point it out because in that moment, you know, as a parent, sometimes, oh, it’s a tough juggle, right? You need to both, like manage your own baggage and watch out about that, but also trust your gut about your kid and who you see they are.
I’m curious from this listener, why are they all doing music? Is that what they all love? If they do, great, but is the one who’s resisting, maybe feeling a passion pull elsewhere and if so, why not experiment? You can always come back to music. Music doesn’t leave you. It never goes away. So it’s a little bit of a complicated, squishy answer. But I think there is some self evaluation and really tuning into who your kids are and what they need in the moment.
RC – I really appreciate that squishy perspective because there is so much information out now about the importance of having hobbies – how hobbies enhance life for all of us. And many kids do need help developing a hobby – especially when it requires them to be off of a screen. And realistically they might need a little push and patience until it catches hold. Like you with your violin, they might not know this is something they’ll grow to really enjoy.
So for parents when do you push? When do you let them quit? And does this create a mindset around healthy determination?
CK – Of course. And it really is not cut and dry. I mean, I think that generally speaking, in our house, maybe commitment or something like that would be one of the core values around this. But in general, if you signed up and you asked me to sign up and I paid the money for it, like we should see this through. And also in situations like that, I think it’s important to give your kid a reasonable anchor. Like, say their soccer season isn’t going that great and they want to quit. And you can say, “You know what Bud, you really wanted to sign up for this and so we did it and we made the space and we took on the expense and there are only eight games left. Let’s just hang on, finish the season strong, focus on being a good teammate, seeing what you can bring, seeing what you can learn.”
Really helping them through that. And I do think there is a point of evaluation you might reach where you say, “Hm, is everybody miserable in this? Because then maybe we do need to pull the plug.”
And I’ll say from my own experience that I had a traumatic aquatic experience in my past. In high school, I was swimming after hours with friends and one of our friends drowned. So I developed a real fear around water and need for water safety. And so when I had kids, of course, I was like, “Oh my gosh, these children, they need to learn to swim.”
Well, I signed my older daughter, who was probably 4 or 5 at the time, up for swim lessons, and it was the most horrendous experience because she didn’t want to be there. And in that case, I didn’t really even ask her. I just forced it on her and she cried the entire time. And I got to a point where I was, “You know what? You can’t even learn anything if you’re this upset in the water. I think we pull the plug and we revisit this later.”
RC – And that might sound really obvious. But it’s not always because if you as a parent have a fear of your child drowning, or even missing out on academic advancement, or never becoming the olympic athlete you aspire for them, that might not be as obvious. That’s where it comes back to the importance of our own baggage getting in the way of understanding what our kids need and how they best learn.
So, how did that work out for your daughter with learning to swim?
CK – She’s now an excellent swimmer. She revisited it. She came back to it later in life and learned eventually, and she’s just fine. Actually, related to really understanding how your kids best learn. The way she wanted to learn was in a friend’s pool where she could just experiment on her own. She didn’t want somebody to instruct her. She wanted to learn it on her own. That was just how she was. And once she did, then she was open to lessons to improve technique. And then somebody tried to recruit her for the swim team, she was that good.
So each situation is going to have its own nuances and complications. But really tuning into the moment and what’s happening in the moment with the humans involved is really the basic thing to do.
RC – Yeah. You were saying you wanted your child to learn to swim because of your understandable fear from that horrible story. That is so sad. And really learning to swim is one of those skills we want for kids for safety. But for other skills or hobbies, as you were talking, I was thinking, “What probably motivates kids best of all is to see us, their parents, enjoying our own hobbies. Having them see us, for ourselves, really passionate about music or sports or academic learning. And it’s never too late to start a hobby.
CK – For sure. You can come to hobbies at any time. That’s the beautiful thing. So yes, to your point, a kid can find their way to it later and it will be even sweeter because they’ve gotten there first.
RC – They’ve owned their own discovery.
Christine, I just want to make sure we’ve fully answered this parent’s question because we’ve been meandering around a little bit here. I’m wondering if you can just give me in one sentence, then, the answer, as we’ve been talking all around it, when is it kind to let our kids quit?
CK – I think if they are thoroughly not enjoying it, no sparks of joy, no moments of joy, and possibly even finding it to be a distressing experience, it’s time to pull the plug for now. They might come back to it later.
RC – Christine, thank you so much. I will be back with you next week for our last question.
We're in the midst of a parenting climate that feeds on more. More expert advice, more gear, more fear about competition and safety, and more choices to make about education, nutrition, even entertainment. The result? Overwhelmed, confused parents and overscheduled, overparented kids.
In MINIMALIST PARENTING, Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest offer a fresh approach to navigating all of this conflicting background "noise." They show how to tune into your family's unique values and priorities and confidently identify the activities, stuff, information, and people that truly merit space in your life.
The book begins by showing the value of a minimalist approach, backed by the authors' personal experience practicing it. It then leads parents through practical strategies for managing time, decluttering the home space, simplifying mealtimes, streamlining recreation, and prioritizing self-care. Filled with parents' personal stories, readers will come away with a unique plan for a simpler life.