Q: How would you handle a 7-year-old who asks to enroll in a new (to her) extracurricular activity but then, when it's time for the first session, decides she doesn't want to do it before you've even left home, mopes through the first class, is rude to the instructor at worst and refuses to participate at best, and won't go back? Money can't be refunded, and this isn't the first time it has happened. I totally understand that she feels nervous about new things, can't fully know in advance whether she is going to like something, maybe isn't feeling it on a certain day or gets a bad vibe from a place, but I'm beyond frustrated by this tendency of hers to not even give a new activity a fair chance. It's not all new activities; she has managed to find a few things she likes, and I suppose we could just do those over and over until she's an adult. But when it's her own dang idea to do something new, and she seems excited for it, and we sign her up, and this situation plays out yet again — argh! I want to encourage her to try new things, but I also don't want to keep throwing money away and sending the message that she can change her mind without even giving something a fair shot and have there be no consequences. Thoughts?
A: You are not alone in wondering how to get children to stay enthusiastically involved in the activities they are signed up for, so let's unpack this a bit.
The first detail I look at is the child's age; yours is 7. Seven is considered the "age of reason" for many children. This means that a 7-year-old can often exhibit a good deal of patience, have empathy for others' feelings and concerns, and see "a larger picture," meaning they can more regularly use logic and rational thought; however, this kind of maturity is not guaranteed. There can be trauma, disabilities, giftedness and many other reasons a child isn't maturing, and I don't know where your daughter is in her development. If your child is anxious, she may want to try new things, but when the time comes to go to the new activity, her anxiety kicks in and gives a strong no. This isn't misbehavior. She wants to do these things, but her brain is hijacked with fear. Is your daughter anxious? I don't know.
Another detail caught my eye: "She has managed to find a few things she likes, and I suppose we could just do those over and over until she's an adult." You also mention that she wants to try new things, and you want her to try new things, but there seems to be some disconnect happening here. Ask yourself some questions:
— Who is the primary driver of this "try new activities" need? You? Your daughter? Be honest with yourself.
— Does one (or both) of you have the "something shiny" syndrome? When the handouts come home from school or the emails come in for a new activity, do you both become distracted and head straight for it? Is she doing this? Are you passive aggressively selling an activity? ("Oh, French baking! I love croissants!") Your daughter will see your excitement and want to be a part of the activity.
— Is your daughter over-scheduled and burned out?
— Do you keep signing her up for activities that you know will fall apart? Maybe this lesson to learn is yours, not hers?
— Is your daughter in charge of the schedule? You are the parent. You are the boss. She isn't signing herself up for these things. Have you agreed to this Kabuki theater of power struggles by continuously signing up for every activity?
— Are you OK with her sticking to what she likes? Do you see it as a parenting failure if she doesn't try something new every six months?
— Does your daughter get a lot of attention for the foot-dragging and refusals? While exasperating, it is powerful for your daughter to have this back-and-forth with you — almost like the two of you are equals. I am not suggesting that she is willfully manipulating you; I am wondering if you have (unknowingly) set up a dynamic where the two of you do this, over and over.
— Are you OK with listening to her cry and whine as you take her to her activity? Her feelings are not problematic; she's allowed to feel apathetic or worried. You don't have to get into it with her. You can simply repeat your mantra: "We signed up for six sessions, and to six sessions we shall go." The storm of her emotions will eventually subside.
The above questions may sound a bit tough, but I want you to get as clear as you can on this issue. Focusing on changing your daughter is not the route you want to go down.
As you ponder all of this, I recommend spending time with her (getting ice cream, going to the park, etc.) and saying, "I've noticed that you don't enjoy going to swimming." Then be quiet. See what she says, and really listen to her. What is she telling you? Is she miserable? Do you have the sense that she may like it? You can say, "Well, here's the deal: We are going to finish the swimming lessons, and I know this may be a pretty big bummer for you. That's OK. You don't have to be positive about it. In the meantime, let's get pizza after our lesson. That will make it more fun." You are holding your boundary and sweetening the pot, and that is absolutely fine.
Find out what these struggles are truly about. This will lead you to the most effective solutions. Good luck!
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.