Should we ever make kids do things they don’t want to do? A deliberately controversial post

We grew up Catholic, so obviously we grew up with the underlying philosophy that a lot of things that are good for you are painful.  “It builds character,” my mother would say anytime I’d complain.  “Yes, just think of all the years I’m burning off of Purgatory,” I would reply.

There was also that Midwestern Protestant stoicism telling us what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.  We’re not sure how much we believe it, but it is in our blood pushing us ever onward.

That’s not the message we hear coming out of the coasts, the NYTimes, the mommy forums… That message is that if kids don’t like something, they shouldn’t have to do it.  Schools shouldn’t give homework.  Kids shouldn’t do extra-curriculars they don’t like (or at all!).  Tiger Moms are horrible people.  Five year olds should be red-shirted so they can play in the dirt another year before starting school.  Kids need to play, not learn.  Why do kids need to read?  (But… but… my kid LOVES reading/learning/math.)  I think Cloud said it best when she talked about adults projecting that they wished they had lots of free time on their kids (and, as a corollary, that they don’t like math).  The Rousseau dream-child concept is still hard at work.

(Somehow when it comes to a gifted kid being bored, then they really need to learn to be bored… it’s ok to force a kid to be bored but not ok to force a kid to do activities.)

I did swimming lessons for 7 years, but didn’t want to quit.  I had to do piano lessons for 9 years.  I’m glad I wasn’t allowed to quit.  I did Ballet lessons for 5 years.  I wish I’d been allowed to quit a lot earlier.  I did Catholic Sunday School or CCD until I was in 4th grade, despite constant complaining.  I’m not sure if I wish I’d been allowed to quit sooner or not, considering I switched religions and went of my own volition once no longer forced to be Catholic.

Growing up there were many things I was forced to do I wish I didn’t have to do, and many things I’m glad I was forced to do, knowing what I do now.  Younger me isn’t a great predictor of older me’s preferences, and who knows if parents are better or not.  Hopefully they’re a little better.

So:  Bottom line:  We think that sometimes it’s ok for kids to do things in their best interest even if they don’t wannnna.  We still wish we hadn’t had to go to public school.  Blech.

Not enough controversy here?  Check out the cross-post at Scientopia guest blogs.

Grumpeteers?  Your thoughts?



32 Responses to “Should we ever make kids do things they don’t want to do? A deliberately controversial post”

  1. feMOMhist (@feMOMhist) Says:

    well I mean obviously you are admitting to being controversial, but umm yes some sh1t kids should be forced to do, but I’ve a fairly limited amount of items on that list. Anything on the extracurricular end of the spectrum doesn’t make it for me. I am a product of the forced music lessons and they didn’t take at all, although both my kids I think are probably going to be interested in lessons soon. I also endured the mandatory religious training, and while it hasn’t harmed me, I’m not forcing that on my kids either (mostly because I am not going to accompany them), and yet this would be something I’d have to force on at least one of my kids. Homework, yes, I will force kids to do that. Take medicine yes. Learn to at least dog paddle to side of the swimming pool, yes. Honestly other than those three things I can’t think of anything else we’ve forced the kids to do. I’m afraid I’m rather on the side of some parents project their aspirations on to their kids and attempt to prepare them for the lives they wish they were living rather than Cloud’s perspective. I can only go off of my kids, but mine ask “can we just have a lazy day to do nothing” all the time, and they barely do anything other than go to school and Scouts. I don’t know that we inhabit some Rousseauian State of Nature, but our lives and location do make it possible for my kids to play outside unattended with friends after school and they seem to find many ways to entertain themselves that appear to be at least mildly beneficial to their development, or at the very least of limited harm. Ok that is probably enough to offend at least some of your readers :)

  2. Comrade PhysioProf Says:

    I don’t understand how this could possibly be controversial. Of course there is some shitte thatte children should be forced to do. And of course there is some level of autonomous decisionmaking children should be permitted. And of course the threshold between the two should be shifting as children grow uppe.

    Personally, I believe that my parents f*cked all this shitte uppe egregiously with me and my sister. They forced us to do all kinds of shitte thatte was totally stupid and pointless and was focused solely on social acceptability in the realm of a sicke shitty system of social norms, and allowed to slide all kinds of shitte thatte would have actually improved our lives tremendously had we been forced to do itte, and the lack of which we hadde to make tremendous efforts as adults to overcome.

  3. Cloud Says:

    Hmmm. I probably come down somewhere in the middle. I wouldn’t force a child to do something she hated unless it was really important- like learning to swim. I don’t get the idea of forcing a kid who hates piano to learn piano. I agree that practicing music can bring a lot of benefits, but I think a lot of those come from the self-discipline you learn when you practice because YOU want to get better. But… if I suspect the kid wants to quit for reasons I deem “bad” I might force her to keep going a little longer.

    And I actually think it is good for gifted kids to learn how to be bored gracefully, since chances are that later in life they’ll have to do some work task that is boring- but I don’t think they need to learn that lesson as thoroughly and repeatedly as some people seem to think they should!

  4. shoopee Says:

    Learning to swim (at least dog-paddle as feMOMhist says) is one that is mandatory for me, whether you like it or not. I love to swim but I don’t expect my kids will necessarily feel the same way. At least at present, my 4 year old definitely does not feel the same. Homework, yes. And I agree with Cloud that I might try to push a kid to stay with some things if I thought the reasons for quitting were not “right.” I’m not sure what I mean by that, but I’m sure we all know of situations in our own lives where we don’t want to do something but our reluctance is borne of something other than our truest and most authentic feelings.

  5. Linda Says:

    I’m thinking the reason some people say that kids shouldn’t be forced to do all those things are that they are exhausted themselves with all the scheduling and hauling involved.

    Also perhaps they realize, deep down, that having some unstructured time is a good thing. Unscructured time does not mean time to sit mindlessly in front of the TV; it means time to play with Legos, explore the outside world, or play tag with other kids on the block. Unfortunately I don’t think any of that outside play is allowed anymore unless it is part of a highly supervised, structured excursion to a nature center, zoo, or part of organized sports.

    I agree with Cloud’s comment about gifted kids needing to learn how to deal with boredom, too. It’s not as if they should be bored all the time, but they will need to learn how to deal with boring stuff they will have to do in adult life.

  6. bogart Says:

    I think it’s entirely appropriate to require kids to participate in stuff at least long enough to assess whether they actually develop a liking for it, and/or to require them to do “something” (e.g. “you must (a) play on some sport team or (b) play some musical instrument” not “you will learn piano.”) Also, I am already falling back on the “someday you will be grown up and can make your own decision about this, but as part of this household you must […].” I will note that after his divorce in his older kids’ teenage years my DH spent a lot of time hoping they were “happy” and being very kind to/generous with them. Now there are worse faults in a dad, but for 50% of the developing adults involved I think this may have slowed progress in dealing with the realities involved in growing up. Or in other words, I do think it’s entirely reasonably to say “someday you will be grown up and can make your own decision about this, but as part of this household you must […],” because that ends up being one of the incentives to tackle the downsides of growing up.

    @Linda that sort of unstructured outside play is allowed. Not as much as it should be perhaps, but it happens all the time with our kid at our house, unfortunately usually alone (however, in fairness, there are also some slightly older — meaning elementary age — kids also engaged in this stuff in our neighborhood usually in pairs). And just yesterday I was discussing with a friend the possibility of her rising 5th grader either taking the school bus home and spending an hour or 2 alone next year some after school afternoons or riding the city bus or her bike to get to her mom’s office about 2 miles from the school. Said friend is undecided about the risk/benefit tradeoff there, but I’m delighted, honestly, to know that parents I respect continue to consider such stuff (I was certainly doing similar at the same age and in the same sort of context).

  7. feMOMhist (@feMOMhist) Says:

    hmm forgot to say that I do have a you sign up for it you finish it rule. So if you are on a team, you play the whole damn season. If I paid for X lessons, then you are attending all the ones I pay for.

    swimming is really the only instance I can think of where I had to push hard. fMhson didn’t want to do it and I was like no trip to G’ma unless you can get from middle of the pool to edge on your own because no way was I spending all my time worrying about him drowning while on vacay

    “I’m thinking the reason some people say that kids shouldn’t be forced to do all those things are that they are exhausted themselves with all the scheduling and hauling involved. ”
    well umm YAY why would I make my life more of a hassle for some sht my kids don’t actually want to do. That is just silly.

    “to require them to do “something” ” my requirement is that they amuse themselves and not bother me. Beyond that, the “something” can be chosen from list of approved activities (no wii or commercial TV during the week etc).

    if you can read there is no excuse for being bored, or to quote mad men only boring people are bored.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      caveat to the bored: one is often not allowed to read in class… one can be bored if one is actively prevented from doing anything interesting. This is why #1 spent a LOT of time counting the dots in ceiling tiles in various classes.

    • Que Sera Says:

      I’m completely with you on this one. My rule will be you start it/beg me to do it, you finish it. Otherwise I will try to expose mijo to new things, but i won’t push him to do them.

      How about family excursions? Hiking or being outdoors was tough for my sister, but my dad made her do it as part of the family.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        My dad made me do some athletic stuff, too. One summer he said I either had to join a team of some sort or he would pay for lessons in some sport. I took tennis lessons in the 100-degree heat, in direct sun. It was miserable. I’m still kinda mad about that.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Ugh, if my parents had made me do that I would still me mad! My mom actually wouldn’t let me do stuff in the summer heat because I had a history of passing out. No detassling for me!

  8. chacha1 Says:

    I think part of the problem is the over-use of the term “forced.” Kids need to be TAUGHT how to do things and that means they need to be instructed and led through the process of learning, starting from a position of knowing absolutely nothing. Teaching someone to do or learn something is not the same as forcing them to do or learn it.

    When people (of any age) know absolutely nothing about a subject, they almost always resist learning it. And when people (of any age) are required – or just advised – to start doing something that’s good for them, they almost always resist doing it. (See: diet & exercise.)

    When teachers and parents start using words like “force” it sends the message that what is being required of kids is somehow wrong. It is not wrong to require kids to learn the proper use of spoken and written language, or anything else taught in school; and it is not wrong to expect kids to learn some basic physical skills.

    In my observation, kids love knowing stuff. They like to be “experts” and will happily tell you all about dinosaurs or bulldozers or tsunamis. They like to know how to do stuff, too. It’s the responsibility of teachers and parents to push students over the hump of initial resistance.

    • becca Says:

      hmmm. I agree that “forced” is loaded.
      I disagree that people *of any age* know absolutely nothing about a subject, they ‘almost always’ resist learning it.
      As an adult, *I* have that problem. Especially if it’s something I “should” know. Then I tend to preemptively assume I’m “bad” at it, and that comes with some anxiety.

      But my kid? I swear, if he’s ever had that problem I’ve never seen it. He’s only 2, so the “I *should* be able to do this!” expectation game isn’t as bad. And think about a newborn learning language, not just from scratch in the sense of not knowing words/grammar/ect., but learning about the *ideas* of language, about sounds or marks representing things. It’s awesome how much enthusiasm they bring to it.

      • bogart Says:

        I agree, though I will say by nearly 5 my DS’s interest in learning something and need to learn it are not necessarily perfectly positively correlated. There are a bunch of things he is curious about that he should be learning, but there are also some skills he should acquire (the ability to put his socks on in a fashion that he finds comfortable) that he is, shall we say, unenthusiastic about? And no, I’m not above saying, “manage your own darn socks” but neither am I below saying, “I need to get out the door now; here, your socks are ON [and unwrinkled], let’s get going.”

        Proof positive that I am a wildly inconsistent parent whose child will require years of therapy, what can I say?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        In my experience volunteering in the public schools, that natural curiosity usually gets beaten out of kids sometime between 4th and 5th grades.

        It’s amazing it lasts that long given all the negative things adults say about say, math and reading.

  9. MutantSupermodel Says:

    So: Bottom line: We think that sometimes it’s ok for kids to do things in their best interest even if they don’t wannnna.

    Of course.

  10. chacha1 Says:

    Nicoleandmaggie, I think your reply to bogart above is spot on. Maybe where people have to “force” their kids to do or learn something, it’s because they’re in an environment where learning new stuff is mocked or discouraged, and adults complain about all the “unnecessary” stuff they had to learn in school.

    I grew up in an environment like that (outside my education-friendly home) and there was just no reward system for getting smart or getting skilled. There was constant mockery and bullying associated with trying to be good in class, and the kids were getting this negative attitude directly from their parents. It’s a wonder anyone even tried to be a teacher in that environment.

    As to athletics, a lot of kids just don’t like the competition aspect. (Which is why those baby leagues now all give everyone a trophy.) If parents could get over their nonsensical obsession with winning meaningless field contests and just let kids learn athletic skills outside the gladiatorial setting, there might be a lot less resistance.

  11. Shannon Says:

    While I totally agree with what you say (and enforce those rules in our house – we just had a long discussion with our youngest yesterday about how in life, everyone has to do sh*t they don’t want to do), I don’t necessarily agree about homework, mostly for those in the earliest grades. That’s because if you look at the research on this subject, the general consensus is that homework at an early age is not correlated with future academic achievement but is negatively correlated with enjoyment of school. In other words, if you give kids too much homework early in life, it sucks the joy out of school. That having been said, I do make my kids do the homework they get (because see above – we all have to do stuff we don’t like or agree with), but I have been known to talk to the school about appropriate levels of homework for younger children (because another important lesson is that you should work within the system to right the wrongs you see).

    On an unrelated note, it’s interesting to see that pretty much all of your readers agree with what you’ve posted, despite the fact that you say this is controversial. But I’ve seen the same sorts of attitude that you describe here – “my kids shouldn’t have to do anything they don’t want to” – so it definitely exists. I wonder what differentiates between those who think that and those who don’t.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Research is actually mixed on the homework question. It totally depends on who you’re talking to which research is quoted. And of course, very little of the research is good because the education community doesn’t, in general, understand the need for randomized treatment-control groups. And the education community and activists of various stripes tend to take narrow results from well-designed psychology studies and turn them into blanket statements that are not what the psychologists originally intended.

      No doubt there isn’t a blanket answer regarding homework benefits that is true for all people and all kinds of homework and what kinds of support networks are in place for kids whose parents cannot help them with homework.

      For my kid, I don’t really care, but my kid isn’t most kids.

  12. First Gen American Says:

    My kid loves learning, but he also hates being bad at stuff. I think my job as a parent is to get him through that “I suck phase.” If we didn’t do that, he still wouldn’t know how to ride a bike or swim or ski. He loves all those things now but hated not being great at them from the get go.

    I recently had an experience where he was totally stressed about a sport and I let him quit. After a lot of soul searching (My catholic and frugal side wanted him to tough it out), I realized that just being thrown into a situation with little to no coaching was just too much for him. I’m sure he’d enjoy it if he got to take baby steps and have small successes along the way. So now I realize I have to also identify environments that just don’t work for his personality and give him something else to do. Some kids are hams and love to be front and center, some are not and take longer to come out of their shells. Yes, we should help them, but most people don’t learn swimming by being thrown in the deep end. I think too much forcing can lead to resistance. Learning should be something kids look forward to for as long as possible.

  13. Anna Says:

    I’m only 14, but I’ve been forced (Mostly by mom) to take violin for eleven years, and I hate it! I also had to do swimming lessons for two years, which I absolutely loved. I’m now doing swim team while I’ve gotten nowhere in violin for the last few years. I have to practice an hour every day except lesson days, and I’d rather be hanging out with friends, out swimming or running, writing a story, watching a movie, reading a book or even doing homework. Let this be a lesson to moms – if your kid hates something for the first five years, don’t make them do it for another six.

  14. Ask the grumpies: kids learning stuff | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] Do we force our kids to do things they hate?  Sometimes!  I suspect DC1 would never ever ever bathe or take a shower if we didn’t make hir.  Certainly not as frequently as every other day.  And there’s things we’ve made them do the initial not fun parts and they end up liking them more later after they’ve gotten better, like cooking for DC1 or the tough parts of Train Your Monster to Read for DC2. […]

  15. Ally Says:

    My daughter is a bit older than a kid now having just turned 15. She absolutely hates camping, which her school runs as a compulsory event every year, with camps gradually getting more difficult. I force her to go to camp each year but each year she presents more defiance, worse reactions, and a greater hating for it. Next year is by far the hardest camp and the last compulsory one. It involves carrying everything from camp site to camp site, having to canoe this stuff from camp sites, and is 8 days long with a 10 hour drive there and back. Last year at camp apparently she was miserable, and falling behind in the physical requirements. She even had to stop 5 minutes into the bike ride to their next campsite because she allegedly had a mental breakdown/anxiety attack and had to be driven the rest of the way. Am I doing the right thing? Should I make her go?

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