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When should you let your kid quit?

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 (iStock/Rudzhan Nagiev)

It’s late September, and your teenage daughter won’t stop moaning about soccer. A natural athlete, she has always been one of the best on the field. But the sport feels different now that she’s in high school; she’s not scoring like she used to and hasn’t connected with the coach. Whether she has plateaued as a player, her teammates have stepped it up, or she’s simply tired of the sport, the game doesn’t bring her the joy it once did. It’s mid-season and she’s aching to quit. What should you do?

Annie Duke is a retired professional poker player and an expert on decision making, and she has some thoughts. In her new book, Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away, Duke explores our hangups about quitting and debunks the idea that blind allegiance to a particular course of action is heroic or wise. Figuring out when to give up one pursuit and take on another is an essential but neglected skill that adults would do well to learn – and then teach to their teenagers.

“Quit is a four-letter word, but it shouldn’t be a dirty one,” Duke told me. Clinging to something that’s unlikely to turn out well gets in the way of engaging in another activity that’s more apt to. “Success does not lie in sticking to things,” Duke writes. “It lies in picking the right thing to stick to, and quitting the rest.”

The key is to understand the expected value of carrying on. If the expected value is high, then it’s smart to keep going. If persevering will help you gain ground toward your goal, then it’s smart to keep going. But if what’s to come looks bleak, it’s wiser to quit. 

This sounds simple. But cognitive biases and hangups cloud decisions. One of the first obstacles is a reflexive negativity toward the idea of stopping something. Sloganeering about resilience and grit – “winners never quit and quitters never win,” for example – turn what should be rational decision making into a test of character. If we think of quitters as losers, we’ll err on the side of sticking with something that ought to be abandoned. Quitting also evokes a distressing sense of uncertainty, because giving up an endeavor before the outcome is clear precludes ever knowing what might have happened if one had carried on to the bitter end. Several subterranean cognitive biases also compel us to cling to the status quo, even when changing course makes better sense, including:

  • the sunk cost fallacy – “I can’t give up now after putting in so much time”
  • the endowment effect – “I own this, so it’s more valuable”
  • the omission-commission bias – It’s considered worse to commit a mistake than simply to allow an error to happen.

Duke recommends deploying several tools to help override these powerful biases. Help your teenager understand the overarching goal, and then to consider the various paths to getting there. Once she has chosen it, encourage her to create “kill criteria” – a list of signals that, if she sees them, will indicate that it’s time to quit, because the chances of an undesirable outcome are too high. A good way to come up with these criteria is to imagine what an unhappy future would look like. Reflecting on possible, future bad outcomes will help her develop useful criteria for knowing when to quit. What would she have been blind to that should have told her to leave? Duke also advises coming up with a “state and date” to force a deadline onto the decision. As she puts it, “If I haven’t done X by Y (time), I’ll quit.” “If we write the kill criteria down in advance, we will pay more attention to these things,” she said. 

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Most everyone struggles to see long-term benefits. We’re all more apt to focus on the short-term advantages or costs, Duke pointed out. But this is especially so for teenagers, who generally are more impulsive and lack the experience to see a future advantage to sticking it out. Getting kids to focus on the future will help them evaluate the decision to stick or quit more clearly. In the end, that decision is not about what it feels like right now, but rather what the long-term costs and benefits are of staying the course or walking away. As important, parents need to talk to their kids about what will replace the abandoned activity. Quitting one thing allows for a shift to something that might move them closer to their goal. 

Now consider your daughter, the freshman soccer player. Since she has only six weeks remaining, you – her quit/stick coaches – encourage her to stay with it for now. You also ask her to imagine what it would look like, in six weeks, if she fell back in love with the sport. What signals would suggest that the game is for her? Maybe it’s being aggressive on the field, or clicking with her teammates, or feeling excited about practice. Now, ask her to imagine an alternate future scenario, one in which she realizes that the game is no longer for her. What signals would lead to this decision? Perhaps she still loathes practice, or languishes on the field, or feels alienated from her peers. With these two possible outcomes in mind, you encourage her to make a plan for how to achieve the happy version of the story; it’s important for all kids to realize that they have agency, and some power to shape their future. When the season ends after six weeks – the deadline for her quitting decision – she’ll return to the kill criteria to see if they’ve been met. If they have, she’ll quit the sport entirely – but not without a plan for what to do next fall instead of playing soccer.

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