When Your Child Won’t Participate©

Alison SmithColumn, Featured, Parenting

When Your Child Won’t Participate

A parent asks:

My five-year old doesn’t want to participate in music class. He doesn’t want to participate in anything – last year it was karate – and when he doesn’t want to participate, he says he “doesn’t feel well”. I don’t know what to do.

Alison answers:

You are not alone. In fact, my own family has experienced this very thing. This issue can cause exasperation for parents and a lot of stress for the child. If not addressed in a positive way, it can cause a rift between the parent and child. This rift can actually begin to erode the child’s trust in the parent that his or her parent will help when they are struggling. Obviously, this is not something us loving parents would ever intend to do!

It is important to note here that children who feel connected with their parent will want to please them. And will often go to great lengths to do so. Therefore, if you see that your son is not doing what he is sure to know is important to you, then there must be a compelling reason why not.

When our daughter was four, she loved dancing. Like most parents, we thought a class would be the perfect way to foster her interest. In addition to that, most other families had their preschooler involved in some sort of paid activity and we were worried she was missing out. So we paid for a dance class at a well-respected school. Even though the teacher was wonderful and the activities were creative and low-stress, our daughter wanted no part. Had I known what to do, she might have eventually begun to participate and really enjoy it. Instead, we felt we either had to either force her or withdraw. We withdrew. I will share more on this later.

The good news here is that this is one of those issues this is actually pretty easy to solve. I will go into a fair bit of detail, in case you’re new to the gentle parenting approach.

So what do you do?

  1. Observe and ask questions. What might be bothering him? Is it anxiety about something new? For younger children, structured classes can be quite foreign and uncomfortable. It goes against their natural desire to explore and learn for themselves. For older children, they may feel they lack skills or will be laughed at. There can be a number of possible reasons, but the solution remains the same. Ask. Observe.
  1. Once you’ve heard from your son, it is critical that he feels you understand his point of view. Set aside any expectations you have for the class, the stress of the financial cost or feelings of being judged in some way. This issue is about your child and your relationship. Get down to his eye level, both literally and figuratively, and try to understand what he is feeling. You have no obligation to like his feelings, nor to agree. Just prove to him that you’re hearing his perspective. The power of validating a feeling should not be underestimated. So many so-called parenting problems become non-issues this way.
  1. Be patient. Especially with a young child or one who is hesitant around new people or activities, you may need to sit with him and watch a class together, or maybe even four of them before he feels comfortable joining in. That’s okay. A good instructor will understand some basics about child development and realize that some children take longer to “warm up”. Keep your child company while you both observe the class. He may surprise you how much he is participating by watching. At home, he may describe the activities or even show you his new moves. At some point, he will likely feel more at ease and ready to join in. Follow his lead. Children are excellent at knowing what they need and what they are ready for. They are natural explorers.
  1. Encourage, but don’t push. Never force. Never bribe. This would also damage the relationship long-term. Do talk about the benefits of music class and how much you loved it as a kid, for example. Express your wishes for your child and let him know you will support him as he tries it.

* Anyone who has worked with me knows that I don’t let them off the hook with fluffy answers and “quick fixes” that won’t last. Great parenting always requires asking ourselves some tough questions. This is no exception.

  1. Be honest with yourself. Is your child overscheduled? Children (even teens and adults) need a certain amount of downtime and unstructured exploration. Think of the droves of people investing in yoga, meditation and even adult colouring books! We all need quiet. We need reflection. We need processing time. Children require even more. By filling children’s schedules with teams, lessons and clubs, they are actually missing out on a whole lot more.

Is your child interested in the activity presented? Some kids are drawn to sports. Others to music. While others enjoy games of logic. Maybe this just isn’t his “thing,” as important as it may be to mom or granddad. Or maybe they aren’t yet ready. Think back to our daughter’s dance class. She loved to dance and still does, but she wasn’t ready for the structure. We decided to keep her love of dance intact, save us all the struggle and try again when she’s older.

Ask yourself why it is important for him to attend. What is your purpose? Are there other ways to meet that need? Can you wait until he’s a bit older? Keep in mind that we don’t get much out of an activity we are forced to do. Are you worried about socializing? Or missing out on opportunity? Afraid he’ll become a “quitter”? Is it maybe because everyone else is taking classes? What if the majority of other families are taking their young kids to these classes and no one is enjoying them?! Consider if there are there other ways to address the reasons you’ve identified, with less stress.

  1. Make a decision together. If you have done all of the above and the problem is not resolving itself, take some time to think about the big picture. If you forego the class(es) for now, what will be gained or lost in the short-term? How about in the long-term? If you continue with what you’ve been doing, what is the potential cost? Take into consideration your child’s thoughts on the matter.

For our family, we seem to have found the right balance for our needs, interests and abilities. We waited for over a year to try another activity for our daughter. We made sure she liked what we signed her up for. We stayed with her until she was more comfortable. We definitely talked it up as exciting, while talking about our experiences as kids! Each of our young children now does one activity per week and we’ve been exploring new activities for future classes through summer day camps. We’ve also added a new class that we all do together. It’s a great, stress-free bonding time for everyone!

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Alison Smith is a mom, parenting coach and gentle parenting advocate living on the east coast of Canada. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Alison SmithWhen Your Child Won’t Participate©