How Hard Should You Push Your Child To Try New Things?

Knowing when to let your child quit is difficult. Here's what parents need to know.
Knowing when to push children, and when to back off, is an art, not a science.
SimplyMui Photography via Getty Images
Knowing when to push children, and when to back off, is an art, not a science.

One of the many challenges of being a parent is knowing how hard to push your child into something new — or to stick with something they’re thinking of giving up on — and when to back off. I’m a mom of two and I often feel myself bouncing between being pushy and relaxed. Like: No, you don’t have to play sports if you don’t think it’s your thing. Sure, you can skip that camp you’re nervous about. But also, you need to be brave when things feel frightening and learn to seize new opportunities even when you feel unsure. And on it goes.

Of course, knowing when you’re pushing too hard, or not pushing enough, is an art, not a science, and a very specific one at that. No one can ever really say where that sweet spot is, and parents and kids might never see eye to eye. (Twenty years later, my own mom still sometimes laments that I gave up the trumpet, an instrument I was truly terrible at, in high school.)

Are you trying to figure out when to push your child to try something new, or empowering them to quit something they say they’re not into? Here’s some guidance to have in mind.

Ask yourself: Am I doing this for me or for them?

Again, no one can tell you whether you’re doing the right thing by pushing your child to try something that they’re not particularly excited about. But a quick gut check can help.

“Get clear about why you’re asking your child to do something new,” said Robbin McManne, founder of Parenting for Connection.

Ask yourself: Are they doing this for me? Or am I doing this for them?

As parents, we sometimes push kids into things that have more to do with ourselves for any number of reasons. We may be comparing them and ourselves to other kids and families, and are feeling worried about falling behind. Or maybe we were pushed into certain things when we were a child. Maybe we’re holding on to the idea that kids “should” do certain things, but we’re not even really clear where that idea comes from.

On the other hand, you might be pushing your kiddo because you really think this is an important experience, whatever it is, and one that will really help them in the long run. And there are benefits to pushing kids beyond their comfort zone — for the right reasons.

“We know that being able to tolerate discomfort is a wonderful life trait, and in addition to that, it makes [kids] grittier and more resilient,” said Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the founding president of the Child Mind Institute, in a blog post on the group’s website.

So really ask yourself: “Are you meeting them where they’re at, or where you think they should be?” McManne said.

Get curious

In order to determine how hard you should push your child, it is essential to have a good understanding of why they’re resisting or putting up boundaries.

“Curiosity is everything,” McManne said. “Ask them why? How come?”

That might sound obvious, but when we’re busy parenting — and feeling frustrated that our kids aren’t just going along with our plans — it’s easy to stop taking that time to get to the root of children’s hesitancy. Maybe there’s a problem you can solve together. Or maybe your child is really showing you a personal boundary that you should respect.

“Ask yourself: Are they doing this for me? Or am I doing this for them?”

Helping children develop emotional intelligence, or EQ, from a young age can help with this process, because it helps them name what they’re feeling.

Sometimes when you probe why your child isn’t interested in something you think they should be, you might uncover a bigger underlying issue that you can help with.

“Sometimes when pushing kids you bump into a real limitation. It can be an anxiety disorder, or a learning disability,” Koplewicz explained on the CMI website. It’s not that they don’t want to do it; it’s that it’s genuinely too hard without additional and specific support.

Ease them in

When your child is really reluctant to try something new, it is important to be respectful of that, McManne said, and go slow. Just like you’d probably like someone to take their time and be gentle with you if you were learning a new skill or, say, starting a new job and trying to learn the ropes.

“You offer compromises,” she said. So say you have a toddler who is really reluctant to go into the pool at swim lessons. Model confidence, McManne said, and take it slow. Maybe they just put their feet in at first. Maybe you sit at the edge of the pool with them. Again, your goal is to meet them where they are — then nudge them forward.

McManne said she often talks to clients about an idea from the book “The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity and Resilience in Your Child,” which talks about how parents have to provide some “pushin’” while also acting as the “cushion.”

Encourage your child to try new things and work through discomfort, as that is a skill that will help them develop resilience and serve them well in life. But respect their boundaries and be empathetic.

“You need to be that soft place for your child to land,” McManne said.