THE BLOG
08/05/2013 10:28 am ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

Why I Let My Kid Quit

Kristen Levithan

I let my kid quit soccer last fall and I'm still wondering if I did the right thing.

Here's what happened:

Over the summer, I signed up both of my boys for our local preschool soccer league. Danny, my 5-year-old, had played in the same league the previous spring and, except for a few times when he showed more interest in trying to climb up the goal than in putting the ball through it, he seemed to enjoy it. When I asked his little brother, Joey, if he wanted to play too, he enthusiastically agreed.

Won't this be fun? I thought. The kids will love it.

Yeah, not so much.

Trouble started brewing on the first day. The coach gathered the team together to distribute jerseys and pick a team name (the Green Dragons, of course). Then he brought out his net bag of soccer balls and showed the kids how to dribble from one end line to the other and back again. Some speedy and agile, some (like Joey) determined and methodical, the team followed the coach's instructions.

Except for Danny, that is. As he dribbled up and back, he steered his ball into his teammates and then bumped into them. When the team gathered again on the sideline, he started picking up some of the other boys, tussling with them the way he does with his dad and brother at home. When I walked over to put my hands on his shoulders to try and calm him down, I could feel his heart racing through his thin polyester jersey. Throughout the rest of the practice, he was aggressive, pushing his way to the ball in a way that was unlike him.

"Boys will be boys," chuckled one of the other dads as Danny hip-checked his son.

Maybe, I thought, but this was a side of my son that I hadn't really seen before. And I wasn't so sure I liked it.

The next week was the first game. At home, my husband and I talked to Danny about keeping his hands to himself, reminding him of the difference between going for the ball and going for the other player, asking him how he would feel if another player knocked him down. He seemed to get it and was his usual self during warm-ups and the beginning of the game, happily running around and cheering for his teammates whenever they made a good play.

After awhile, his coach asked him to take a turn on defense. He showed Danny which line to stay near when his team was on offense and how to get between the other team and the goal when they had the ball. After his coach walked away, Danny wandered around a bit, studying a dandelion in the grass, and then made his way to another line on the field. Seeing this, the coach gently reminded him, "That line back there, buddy."

And that was all it took. Danny lost it. He started crying and kicking the ground. His coach approached him to comfort him, but to no avail. Soon, Danny walked over to the sidelines and I took him away from the field for awhile to talk. While I tried to soothe him, he keened in my arms and railed off a list of frustrations:

Idon'twanttobeondefense
MycoachkeepschangingwhichlineI'msupposedtostandon
Myhandsarecold
Noone'spassingmetheball


After a few minutes of venting and another few minutes of my encouraging him to rejoin his team, he stomped back onto the field, but then fell apart every time the ball came near him.

A version of the same events happened the next week. And the next.

The following week, I sat down with Danny at home before the game. Snuggled up on his bed, I asked him if he wanted to go to soccer. Right away his eyes welled up with tears. "No," he said. "I don't think I want to play soccer anymore." We kept talking, dancing around issues of frustration, perfectionism and anger. I finished the conversation knowing that we had a lot of work to do, but convinced that that work wasn't getting done out there on the soccer field.

So, I let him stay home that day. And, after I talked to his coach and learned that the Green Dragons had an extra player on their roster, I decided to let him stay home the rest of the reason.

Danny is a boy who loves nature and books and crafts, a sensitive, gentle soul who takes care of his little sister and still hides his eyes when Belle's father first encounters the Beast. He is smart and thoughtful and loving. But, like his mother, he's also a perfectionist, a control freak.

And something about soccer rubbed up against the rawest, most vulnerable parts of him. Maybe it was that he wasn't as good as some of the other kids on his team. (And that's a pretty new feeling for him, a kid who is usually very good at the things that he tries.) Maybe he was still recovering from that ear infection he had last month. Maybe, after a week at preschool, he just wanted to stay home and read with his dad.

We're working on that with Danny now -- practicing naming our feelings and thinking about ways to cope when things don't go our way. I'm working on naming my feelings too, even as I wonder what lesson my letting Danny quit really taught him.