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The Courageous Quitter

"What young people are asking for is clear in the research: Do we believe in them? Will we listen to them and take their challenges and feelings seriously? And will we support them on their journey? The answers shouldn't be difficult — if we listen." [1]
— Erquiaga and Gomperts

We were driving north on the I-5 after volleyball practice. I'm guessing my daughter was 11 years old at the time. Those were the days of spending weekends driving around to sporting events, trying not to be one of those crazy, over-competitive, sideline-kibitzing dads while punching and pushing thousands, no millions, of balls to her as her official warm-up guy. You might say I had a lot of skin in the game, not always a good thing.

It had been a great and fun practice but long, and now I couldn't tell if the smacks, thuds, and slaps of the volleyballs were inside the big, three-court gym or inside my head. "I'm going to go with tennis," she said. "I think I'm going to pick tennis."

Audrey's tennis was developing well, but I personally loved watching her play volleyball, too. I thought she could set it up great, and her serve was winning points. I had mixed feelings.

I hadn't thought much about quitting, the Q word, but should have known this moment was coming. She realized, before I did, that at some point you might have to pick your sport of focus in this competitive world. In this competitive world, if you are serious about a sport or an art or a cause, it can easily become a year-round avocation. Was this quitting, or was it picking tennis over volleyball?

Audrey also might have figured out that, if she was picking competitive tennis, she could be picking to get some B grades rather than A's. I don't know if she filled in those dots. But she seemed clear—tennis was her thing. There were all sorts of choices being made there. Over the next few years, I observed hundreds of instances where she played tennis while her friends bonded without her and embraced all the open space of high school "hanging out." Sometimes that broke her heart, but she stuck with tennis.

Grauer Middle School students Tahlia, Sarai, and Karina planting milkweed for butterflies on campus - November 28, 2018

Parents, there may come a time, driving down the road or mulling over dinner one night, when your child says, in the most natural way in the world: I think I'd like to pick: ______. There is obviously a virtuous place for values like commitment and perseverance, and I'm all for teaching about them. But an occupational hazard of teaching high school is that we are often exposed to an ideological obsession with "sticking with it" that goes too far. "Winners never quit!" Sure. We know all about it, and we know a trap when we see it, too. What about pursuing your passions as they emerge? What about being open to opportunities? Aren't those core values?

Kids need to try many things, test many waters, play on lots of fields, and quitting one of them often takes way more courage than staying in a joyless enterprise. What about the cowardice of allowing yourself to remain stuck, the cowardice of pleasers and followers? Getting unstuck takes commitment and courage, too. Students raised on blind obedience to "toughing it out" can only grow up unhinged from a true north, serially plotting an escape or a greater freedom.

Ten years later, Audrey dropped a bigger bomb: "Dad, I'm quitting tennis." After nearly three years of college, varsity tennis, she was done. By then I knew better: it wasn't quitting at all. It was opening up space for new things and growing longings needing real time: her cultivation of lifelong friendships, her inner city after school arts club, her weekend ski trips, her photographic arts, her Spanish club (all of which somehow have contributed to her development as a teacher). This time I experienced no loss but grew astonished at all the beautiful opportunities that opened up for her, and heartened by the devotion that came with them.

Grauer High School students Francesca, Zoe-Daphnee, and Rhian performing at Café Night - November 29, 2018

There is a lot of buzz right now about the overprogrammed child, the hurried child, the anxious child, the helicopter parent, the fearful parent—and simultaneously epic levels of millennial job quitting, and one in five quit college. But why? And why do Grauer School grads persevere and graduate from college at higher rates?

I can't deny that perseverance in the face of challenge is a gargantuan value in need of development as we mature. However, as parents, when we push one thing we are pulling another, whether we like it or not. Our push for one thing might be a lifetime loss of another. A recent Freakonomics Radio podcast, "The Upside of Quitting," refers to the concepts of sunk costs and opportunity costs from economics and psychology. Here is a calculus of quitting we learn from these concepts: we can be so worried about how much we have "sunk" into something, it prevents us seizing great new opportunities — opportunities that bring us greater challenge, development, and joy.

Carpe diem, I say! Letting go takes courage and intuition (unless it becomes a pattern). Our teens want to write their own stories. If they feel choked, they want to breathe again. They want connection and that could take a few tries. As a student, someone will call you a quitter, but you have a right to find your own way, find your people—as a student, finding those is your job. Not volleyball.

It's amazing how intuitive our kids can be. We can see this when we observe them carefully and non-judgmentally. It feels great and right when, rather than controlling our children, we grow attuned to them, learn to listen to them deeply and observe them purely as they courageously meet their needs. It's like experiencing natural forces.

It feels great to ask our child, "How's volleyball going for you?" and to have them know we really mean it; to not act like we already know the answer: to listen.

Grauer High School students doing yoga at the beach - November 2018 (PHOTO, STUART GRAUER)

Each of us is liable to err on the side of being either controlling or liberating, and each situation has its own, unique realities, the adaptive optics of parenthood. To me, our greatest focus and commitment is on the development of passion and purpose—our students can do more in the world that way and grow stronger in their slow but dramatic march to independence, the Oregon Trail we know as teenage life. Oftentimes to quit a small thing is to join a bigger thing, to have a bigger life. Dropping something almost always opens up a new world of something else that lies before us, often as yet unimagined, undiscovered, too important to forsake.

The New Year is upon us. I wish you all a world of passionate discovery, especially my students.

PS: Audrey served as head coach of a high school tennis team this year.


[1] OPINION: Advice about how to raise the high school graduation rate — from students themselves, The Hechinger Report, July 23, 2018.




Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column


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Grauer’s writing reminds us that
"Great Teaching, singular, rare, unusual, is something that should be sought after and found. Thank you.”
Richard Dreyfuss, Actor, Oxford scholar, founder of The Dreyfuss Initiative

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