Everyone thinks Jennifer was born to play softball. Her mother remembers how her baby girl pitched toys across the room with her strong right arm. Her dad's office has a wall of photos showing Jennifer pitching, catching and celebrating wins. Jennifer goes to softball camps in the summer and clinics in the winter, as well as softball league in the fall and spring. Her coaches have even started to talk about preparing this gifted 12-year-old to try out for the national girls' league in the next few years. Jennifer's parents never intended for softball to take over their daughter's life. "One thing just sort of led to another," her mother tells her friends. "And Jennifer is just so darn good at it, it seems like a crime to quit now."

When it comes to kids' activities, expect change

There are some exceptional children who adopt a passion for one sport or activity and never change. But such single-minded focus is very rare: Few children obsessed with dinosaurs grow up to be paleontologists! Most children shift from one interest to another, exploring and trying many different activities as they learn what they like and what they don't like.

Parents are wise to encourage their children's interests without going overboard. A boy's obsession with ice skating or a girl's fascination with gymnastics could change by next month or next year, so it makes sense to go slow before investing heavily in lessons and equipment.

Lately, Jennifer has started to realize that softball isn't "fun" for her anymore. She is beginning to express her ambivalence about the sport by dawdling instead of getting ready for practice and being increasingly short-tempered with her parents. "I guess we have a teenager now," they shrug to each other. "Who knows what's going on with her?"

Be curious about your child's emotional shifts

When your child seems cranky, reluctant or sloppy about going to classes, practices or games, explore the reasons why. Is this just a bad day or a bad mood? Or is this possibly how your child starts trying to let you know that he or she wants to do less of, or even quit, an activity they no longer enjoy or care about?

Jennifer doesn't know why she is in a bad mood either. Yet one thing she is noticing is a general sense of "missing out." When a new friend invited her to a weekend at the family beach house, Jennifer had to say no because she had a game. A neighbor showed her pictures from her horseback riding camp that looked like fun - If only she could do it. And Jennifer is keenly interested in her cousin's guitar playing. "What would it be like to know how to make music?" she wonders. "How come I've never tried something like that?"


Keep your eye on the big picture

Are your children getting opportunities to explore, experiment and develop new interests, as well as pursue their passions?

One night, while watching a classmate's ballet video on her mother's phone, Jennifer burst into tears. Startled, her mother took the phone from Jennifer's hand and asked what the problem was. "I've never done ballet, all I've ever done is stupid softball," Jennifer said. I HATE softball!" Her mother took a sharp breath. She had never heard Jennifer say anything like this before. Giving herself time to process this, she asked, "You want ballet lessons?"

" Maybe, I don't know," muttered Jennifer. "It's probably a stupid idea," she added sourly, while looking sideways at her mother to gauge her reaction. "Well, don't you like softball?" her mother asked. "I don't know, Mom," Jennifer said hesitantly. "I guess so. But would you be mad if I wanted to try something else for a change?"

Listen without judgment

Encourage your children to talk honestly about whether they like and want to continue with any activity or sport by reassuring them that they do not need to fear your disappointment or anger.

Jennifer's mom told her husband, "We need to talk about this. Jennifer seemed almost afraid when she told me she wished she could try ballet, as if she was scared I'd be angry or upset that she wanted to do something other than softball."

" Well," her husband replied, "I have to admit my first thought was 'How can she quit now?' But then I remembered, geez, the kid is only 12-years-old. That's kind of young to plan out your whole life." It took several more discussions for Jennifer and her parents to work out a new plan. After six years of softball, it was a very big change to get used to the idea of taking a break from all softball, all the time.

Uphold your family values

Adhere to rules such as "It's not okay to quit before the season/or the class ends" while also leaving room to discuss the future. Before signing up for the next season or next class, talk about whether it's time to take a break and try something else.

Eventually, it was decided that Jennifer would continue to play until the end of the summer, because it wasn't fair to let her teammates down. And she agreed to go to softball camp, because the family had already paid for it. But, after that, everyone agreed to take a break from softball for a few months at least and give Jennifer the chance to explore some new activities.

Build in breaks and build up resilience

After a wonderful soccer season in the fall, invite your child to try something different in the winter. Taking a break can help children pursue new interests and build resilience as well as new skills. Children benefit from trying new things that they aren't good at, and pursuing activities that they do very well. Resilient children learn from experience how to be comfortable as an awkward beginner, then enjoying the pleasure of excelling at a skill they have mastered.

When Jennifer's parents discussed the new plan to take a break from softball, she burst into tears again. "Now what?" her parents asked with frustration. "I'm just so glad you don't hate me for wanting to stop softball for a while!" Jennifer said, her wide smile sparkling beneath her tears. "And, do you think that maybe I can get a guitar? And singing lessons? I just know I would really LOVE guitar!" "Slow down, Jennifer," her parents laughed. "Let's take this one step at a time."

No experience is wasted

A child like Jennifer may spend the next year or so making up for lost time. Six weeks devoted to guitar lessons (with a rented guitar!) might be followed by ballet lessons at the community center and then a sketching or painting class. All of these new activities are useful learning experiences, even if it means discovering an allergy to horses at horseback riding camp, or finding that an active 12-year-old girl really doesn't like sitting still for her art classes. But maybe she loves the Saturday "Girls on the Run" group.

Parents should prepare to be disappointed, though perhaps not surprised, when a child chooses not to return to a once-favorite activity such as softball. The skills learned from years of dedication to a sport or other activity - skills such as effort, focus and dedication - will continue to serve children well in many aspects of life.


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Emory Luce Baldwin is a family therapist and certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP), which offers classes and workshops to parents of toddlers through teens. For more information, visit PEPparent.org or call 301-929-8824.