Dolphin Parenting and Why I Let My Son Quit Soccer

When people ask me what my favorite baseball team is, I have no answer. No answer for football either, I am one of what feels like the few people who don't watch either of these hugely popular American pastimes, which I mainly don't watch or support because my family didn't watch them. I was raised in a soccer family, we played soccer, we watched soccer, my brother traveled Europe playing soccer (and we luckily got to follow him around watching him play), that was our thing. Because of a sort of random and unexpected allergy (I had the same thing this soccer playing girl has, coincidentally) my own soccer playing career was sidelined, but I have nevertheless stayed into the sport and when the World Cup rolls around I am like a child at Christmas. So, that being said, I always assumed my own kids would play soccer, and Finn even started out with his first pair of shoes being a hand me down pair of indoor Adidas soccer shoes, and numerous little Chelsea Football Club shirts and toys were gifted to him over the years. He played micro soccer at the YMCA, and seemed to be into it, I mean, he was 2 and there was very little actual soccer going on, but he went and didn't cry, so it was deemed successful. Then soccer started in kindergarten and I was ALL fired up for him to start. We played out in the yard, we practiced, he seemed excited and he said he wanted to play, and he was. Until he wasn't. He started to complain about going to practice, which I brushed off to his age, and maybe him being a little tired, and he complained about going to the games, which again I brushed off, thinking to myself that he would get more into it as it went along. But he didn't, he didn't seem engaged, he didn't try as hard, and I felt frustrated that he wasn't enjoying himself. If he just keeps at it, he'll start enjoying it, he'll get better at it, I kept thinking to myself.

I asked him last fall, sort of as a secondary thought, if he was ready for soccer this year as I was literally about to sign him up online and he informed me that he didn't want to play this year. Huh? Don't want to play? Again I brushed it off, I actually totally disregarded what he said for a little bit until he explained he just wasn't into it, he'd rather do tennis. Not only was he not into it, he was against playing it at all. Then it dawned on me, and it seems unbelievable to say that what he was telling me point blank even needed to "dawn on me" in the first place, that how would I feel if someone was pretty much forcing me to participate in something I had no desire to do? Looking at it from that angle his attitude seemed not irritating and frustrating but instead made perfect sense. I hate volleyball, like, I really hate it, and could never get the technique right for hitting the ball so instead my wrists would ache with huge red welts, let's just say it was not my forte. So I imagined if for whatever reason someone drove me to volleyball practice once a week, one that usually cut into my dinner time and bedtime routine, and then I was forced to spend my weekend playing this same sport when I had already expressed I really didn't want to. Would I get joy out of never quitting volleyball? Probably not. Would I develop a negative attitude and complain about going to volleyball and not try my hardest at it? That sounds more likely, especially if I were a child.

Finn wanting to "quit" soccer wasn't a case of seven year old ambiguity, it wasn't a case of being tired, it was a case of me pushing him to do something based on my own feelings, something I thought he would enjoy of course, but it became clear to me why the fun was sucked out of it for him. I realized that even though we started soccer when he was pretty young, I needed to involve him in decisions we made about activities, even if they didn't jive with what I thought he would like or thought he would be good at.

However, I worried about letting him "quit" something he initially liked. Should I have pushed him to keep going? Was I teaching him that he should quit something as soon as he got a little tired of it rather than pushing through and seeing if it turned out he liked it or got better at it? Admittedly, this also combined with the fact that I wasn't in LOVE with going to soccer either. It was a hassle to get all the kids there on time, it often got late and cold once the sun set, and we would wind up having a hasty dinner sometimes in the car on the way home because it got so late. Plus having our weekends eaten up partially by shuttling back and forth to a game he wasn't even interested in playing in was not appealing to say the very least. And it wasn't exactly free either, so no more soccer. We put the cleats and shin guards away, leaving the door open for him starting again in the future if he wanted to. It was actually sort of a relief, and it helped make room for him to get into tennis more, which he seems to actually enjoy and very rarely complains about doing and has also gotten rather good at.

Still, I continued to be uneasy with the feeling that I just let him give up on something that he did have an initial interest in, until I started reading about "Dolphin Parenting". We have all heard about "Tiger Parenting", a term coined by author Amy Chua’s provocative 2011 memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the strict and rather aggressive style of parenting designed to hopefully turn children into high achievers and hard workers, but "Dolphin Parenting" is something different altogether.

"Dolphin Parents" is a new term coined by Shawn Achor, a Harvard-trained psychologist and author of The Happiness Advantage and the upcoming BeforeHappiness, with the idea that we think that success will make us happy or at least fulfilled, but it’s really the other way around. By being happy, we’re far more likely to find success. Research has shown that being happy makes people more intelligent, creative, and energetic. Dolphin Parents are the ones who raise positive kids by taking things in stride, talking about things they’re grateful for, and being kind. And those are the kids who are going to make a difference in the world. This approach used the dolphin as their "mascot" because the animals are generally playful, social and intelligent. The main difference is that Tiger Moms believe, “If you work hard, then you’ll be successful and someday you’ll be happy" and Dolphin Parents believe, “If you create happiness and positivity in the present, then you’ll be more successful in the long-run.”

The Dolphin Way of parenting is also outlined in a new book out recently by Vancouver psychiatrist Shimi K. Kang, called The Dolphin Way, which urges parents to abandon the striving, overscheduled lifestyle of Tiger Moms and adopt a more balanced, natural, approach. Kang explains that humans, like dolphins, are social beings meant to live in family and community “pods.” Too often, though, we’ve replaced those pods—groups of kids playing together in the neighborhood for example, with structured activities where the minivan becomes the kitchen table.

I myself was definitely guilty of this, I saw setting up activities and team sports and stuff like that as a way to not only get some good physical exercise, but as a way for the kids to be with friends. I overlooked the idea that it was also super structured, and overlooked the benefits of free play and letting them just go outside and be little kids running around together doing their own thing. Making Finn play soccer when he wasn't into it now seemed as ridiculous as me going out into the backyard and forcing all the neighborhood kids to play a match while I watched and barked out instructions from the sidelines.

Instead of over-scheduling kids and over committing to a new activity, Kang suggests focusing on activities kids can try out versus “committed” activities. The Harvard-trained psychiatrist, who participated in precisely zero extracurricular activities as a child, also negotiates the terms of her kids’ activities on a case-by-case basis. If your child is interested in dance, for example, set limits for what they should try before they quit. Maybe you have to shell out for six sessions in order for them to really try it, so explain that they need to try it that many times, and if they want to quit after that, it's okay. The danger comes in over-stigmatizing quitting, where the child feels like they are a failure for quitting something even if it isn't something they are particularly interested in anymore. This in turn can lead to them not even wanting to start something new, for fear they might not like it and will want to quit.

Sometimes just taking a break is enough to renew interest in something your child once loved. Maybe the timing was bad, maybe the coach just wasn't their cup of tea that time around, maybe it was just an off season. Step back, let them try something new, but don't look at quitting as an end all be all for that particular activity.

So, for us, I'm going to focus on our own little dolphin pod, and on the kids running in their little friend pods. Maybe some kids are like Tiger Woods and they find out they have an aptitude for a certain sport before they can walk and turn it into success, but maybe others find it along the way, and use their enjoyment to foster their eventual success.