Finish what you start

Our five-year-old son is very shy, so we were pleased when he recently decided to join a gymnastics course. At the first session he absolutely refused to join the group. Now, five sessions later, he participates reluctantly but says he hates to go. Should I be making him “finish what he started” at such a young age? He is starting to make some headway, but I don’t want him to be turned off joining other groups.

No, you shouldn’t make a five-year-old finish what he started. He’s much too young for that. At his age, he’s just beginning to explore what he likes and dislikes. A child becomes an individual self by exploring various opportunities and discovering what he or she likes and dislikes, as well as what he or she is good at. Until about age ten, the child should still be exploring, and should have plenty of opportunities both to be exposed to new potential interests, and to change his mind if he discovers that he really doesn’t like something he has enrolled in. Even in the teens and adulthood, a person should not have to make a long-term commitment to something he or she is just exploring. If you force a child to continue in an activity that he doesn’t enjoy, you are teaching him that his own feelings and preferences don’t matter, that it isn’t okay for him to like what he likes; he must subdue his own feelings and act out of “duty” and do what others say he should do. This damages his self-esteem, his ability to be independent, and his ability to use his own feelings as a guide to what is good and fulfilling for him.

Age is a factor in another way. Time feels much longer for a very young child; a six-month course is an eternity. During the stage of exploration of interests, courses should be brief, geared both to the child’s age and to the fact that he is exploring his interests. Avoid enrolling your son in programs which require a year-long commitment, and money up front. If you don’t have much money, rent expensive equipment such as musical instruments rather than buying, until you know whether your child is really going to take to this activity. Otherwise you may end up blaming your child unfairly for your financial losses. The time for making commitments and following through with them is after the child’s talents and interests have been discovered. After about age ten, if the child already knows through previous explorations what an activity is like, it is appropriate for him to be asked to make a commitment for the duration of a course, and you may also put out money to back up your child’s commitment.

How do you determine what your child really likes or doesn’t like? Don’t go by how he feels on the very first day. If your child comes home the first day from an activity and says he loves it, it could be an initial enthusiasm, based on an entertaining teacher or on the presence of friends. This will wear off soon. Both my sons went through this with martial arts, and I’m stuck with useless uniforms. A child must continue liking an activity for some time before you can consider it an important interest. Also, if your child dislikes something, make sure it isn’t the teacher rather than the activity that he doesn’t like. I gave up piano lessons at age seven because of a bad-tempered teacher, but I believe I would have enjoyed it very much if I’d had a teacher who had understood children. Whenever possible, attend and observe the activity itself to see what the problem is.

One more thing : Your son’s shy temperament makes it more difficult for him than for other children to venture out and try new things, and it may take him some time to be comfortable in a new activity. It helps a shy child if parents or friends are present to make the new situation comfortable for him for the first few weeks.

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