Is “Giving Up Too Easily” About Self-Confidence?

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast:

Is “Giving Up Too Easily” About Self-Confidence?

Episode 034 · Duration: 00:15:10

Is “Giving Up Too Easily” About Self-Confidence?

Are you struggling to know how to handle your child or teenager, who gives up too easily?

Les, from the state of Maryland, writes:

Is "Giving Up Too Easily" About Self-Confidence?I am the parent of a rising high school freshman. My son has always loved sports but never wants to put the effort in to get better. We have spent so much money on teams and clinics, not because we forced them on him, but because he wanted to. The problem (I believe) is self-confidence. Whenever he plays with kids that are at a higher level he decides that team, or club, or clinic is not for him and ends up quitting. How do I get him to understand that putting in the effort and not quitting will make him better? He went to a camp before tryouts for his new high school and was intimidated by the skills of the kids at the camp and now he doesn’t want to try out. Should we encourage him to tryout anyway? We don’t want to force him if he really doesn’t want to. Help!

Thanks for your question, Les. Let’s see if I can offer some perspective.

How we think of a problem is going to determine how we address the problem, so if we think of this as a self-confidence problem, it may take us in a very limiting direction. I’d think of this more as a character development issue. Giving up and quitting, even for a kid who lacks self-confidence, is not acceptable. If he signs up for camp and sees he’s among the weaker athletes there, he needs to find a way to use the program, use the opportunity, develop his skills and have a good time.

The Importance of Playing Sports

Most kids will not grow up to be athletes; we all know this. Sports in childhood and adolescence is more about developing a relationship with our bodies, developing team skills, friendship, being active, and developing character. Learning to be comfortable with failure is a critical component of learning, growing, and becoming successful.

Learning to be comfortable with failure is a critical component of learning, growing, and becoming successful.Click To Tweet

Being allowed to quit is not going to help him grow his self-esteem or self-confidence. It is not going to help him to improve, and it will undermine character development. We want to teach our kids to keep commitments, make the best out of difficult situations, stay positive, and be committed to learning and growing.

Les, when you say he loves sports but doesn’t put the effort in to get better, that actually doesn’t sound like a kid who loves sports to me. Kids who love sports work at it and love working at it. So while he might enjoy playing sports he might not have the competitive spirit that describes someone who loves sports. You might be confusing his enjoying playing sports with loving sports and wanting to excel. He (and you) might be engaging in a pattern where you keep signing him up, with his approval, with the hope that he’ll stick it out, while he has developed the idea that sticking something out is optional. It shouldn’t be.

If your son signs up for a sports camp designed to help kids improve their skills, then he needs to utilize the opportunity to improve his skills even if he doesn’t have the drive or intention of becoming a top athlete in his sport. If he wants to quit, his dad needs to say “No way.” You can coach him on how to deal with it. He can talk to the coaches and ask them what reasonable goals for him at his level would be. He can make friends with some of the other kids, and he can work hard at getting better. Sometimes at the end of these camps, they give out awards, and he just might get the most improved player award. The important thing is that he challenges himself, does his best, and improves.

It’s All About Mindset

In fact, kids who believe they can improve with effort, apply the effort. They have what’s been called a growth mindset. Kids who think they’re only as capable as they are now, and can’t improve with effort, don’t apply the effort. They have what’s termed a fixed mindset. The research on this subject of student success comes from Carol Dweck, and is discussed in her book, Mindset. This is no small thing. When these two groups are confronted with a problem or task that is, by design, somewhat difficult for their ability level, growth mindset kids’ brains light up with activity as they engage problem solving. Neurological activity for fixed mindset kids slows way down under the same circumstances and this both reflects their hopelessness and ensures failure.

Les, an important question for us to ask is whether or not your son persists in other situations. In school, does he stay with a difficult problem or assignment, or does he easily give up? He may simply enjoy sports and want to get better, but he may not have a highly competitive nature and he might find sports filled with highly competitive kids intimidating. He might enjoy lower-key environments for his athletic activities.

What Are His Thoughts?

It would be important to have the conversations with him about his feelings.

High school is generally when kids separate out into serious athletes and more recreational athletes, with the more serious kids participating on high school teams. However, there usually are high school sports where lots of kids can participate regardless of natural ability or skill. Track & Field and Cross-Country, for instance, are sports that are open to kids of all abilities and having lots of participants is generally a plus for the team’s ability to score points. Also, wrestling is a sport that kids haven’t been participating in prior to school and kids compete against kids in their same weight class. Often, just being small makes a kid a hot commodity for a wrestling team.

But Les, the point is this: we don’t want your son to develop the bad habit of quitting something when he becomes uncomfortable. We want to expect him to stay with his commitments and work through his feelings. The discussion shouldn’t be on whether he quits or not. The discussion should be on what he’s feeling and ways to deal with it. Can he simply accept that he isn’t as talented or experienced as the other kids and set a goal to personally improve at a certain skill in the sport or to a certain level? How about if he talks with the camp leader and talks about where he fits in and what specifically he could work on?

You don’t want your child to develop the bad habit of quitting something when they become uncomfortable.Click To Tweet

But, in the end, whether or not he stays with a specific sport isn’t something we should worry about. We do want him to have interests and passions that he does, in fact, stay with and build skill with. We want him learn some things about himself.

What About Getting Involved In Other Activities?

Let’s say the next thing he lands on is wanting to play the guitar. Rather than running out and getting him a guitar and signing him up for lessons, have a realistic discussion with him about his reasons for wanting to play guitar. Talk through his goals, and what he’s willing to put into it. It will be important for him to have some financial investment in a guitar, and a realistic sense of how the learning curve works learning to play an instrument.

How does a learning curve work? Think of a graph where the horizontal line on the bottom represents time, and the vertical line represents skill level. When starting out learning something new, the line along the time axis stays pretty flat, or goes up very slowly. In other words, everything is hard at first and improvement is slow. Then, after a while, the line starts to steepen and things get a bit easier and improvement comes more quickly. Then, once a certain level of ability is achieved, improvement slows down again and if the learner perseveres, after a while it will steepen again. If we know this and have experience with it, we’ll have the confidence that we can learn anything we want to devote the time and effort to. We won’t be intimidated by that early slow progress.

It’s great role modeling for parents to learn something we’re completely new to. What’s that one thing you always wished you had learned? Piano? How about learning a foreign language, backpacking, a martial art, or landscape painting? Why not try something you don’t know how to do, but would love to, and commit to learning it. That way we’re teaching our kids that learning and growing is what’s important, not being great at everything you do. If you work at something long enough and hard enough, you will become proficient. We had the rule in our family that both of our kids had to participate in at least one sport a year and had to develop proficiency with at least one musical instrument.

So Les, rather than worry about your son’s self-confidence or fighting with him to go out for a specific high school sport, I’d be having some discussions with him about what he really does want to pursue. I’d talk with him about sticking with things, learning curves, and building a growth mindset. Then I’d put those discussions into action by having some standards and accountability in place.

For instance, let’s say if after a discussion he decides to go out for cross-country. He finds out he’s not as fast as some of the kids and the workouts are hard, so he starts complaining and talks about quitting. You’ll need to tell him that’s not how we do things. You give him some good support and let him know that as his body adjusts, he’ll get faster and the workouts easier and more fun. You let him know he is required to keep his commitment. Then write down his running times at the beginning of the season, and then at the end of the season so he can see his improvement. Make sense?

Parents, let’s be sure our kids are comfortable challenging themselves and dealing with adversity. Let’s commit to setting a good example for our kids. Let’s let them know about our failures and our struggles. Let’s take up an activity we’d like to learn, but have never taken the time to invest in. Let’s challenge ourselves with this question: are we a family of life-long learners?

Be sure your kids are comfortable challenging themselves and dealing with adversity.Click To Tweet

Heartfelt thanks to you, Les, for your question. Thanks for tuning in today, listeners. Please feel free to visit my website at and sign up for my weekly newsletter. If you haven’t already, grab a copy of my book, Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle. And if you are already enjoying my podcast, I’d so appreciate it if you would stop over to my iTunes site, Healthy Family Connections, click on ratings and reviews, and write me a brief review.

Please remember, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.

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