What to Do When They Don’t Like Lessons

A children baseball player don't want to play

Last summer your four-year-old agreed to swim lessons, and he even seemed a little excited. However when swim lessons started, he clung to your leg and cried through the first lesson. He sat on the side for the next few lessons that followed. Here are some ideas for the next go around:

Ask what they’d like to do – At any age, it is good to ask their opinions and really listen to what extracurriculars they’d like to do and why. It’s fine if there are things you require like learning to swim, but for most of their activities it helps when they have a say.

Preview or smaller related experiences – If your child wants to take gymnastics classes, maybe start with a free trial or host a birthday at the gym. At the very least, watch gymnastics videos on youtube.

Enroll with friends – Everything’s better with a buddy.

Finish what you start (don’t sign up for year long programs) – I am a fan of encouraging children to finish what they start. To make that happen, it’s best to enroll in shorter programs until you both have a better sense of what they like to do.

Give matter of fact empathy before, during and after – When a child is complaining that they don’t want to go, many parents answer with logic and reasoning saying, “all of your friends are there,” and, “you had fun there yesterday.” This is all just stuff to argue with. It’s far better to meet complaints with empathy and move forward saying, “I know you don’t want to go. This is hard,” as you put on their shoes or walk out the door.

It’s okay to stay, but if you do disconnect and be boring – Unless it’s meant to be a parent-child class, it’s best to sit off to the side and not participate. When a parent stays a few days while their child adjusts to our preschool, we ask the parent to bring work to do or something to read while they sit off to the side paying no attention to their child or the class. If the parent is boring, the child is more likely to join the rest of the class.

Don’t push them to join, let the activity and teacher pull them in – If you stay, it’s okay if your child sits nearby. While you are being boring, it’s best to disengage. The more you tend to push them out, saying things like, “you should go play blocks with them,” the more they tend to cling.

Okay to leave, if you do ask for direction – If your child is struggling and you’d prefer to leave, it’s good to check in with the teacher first. This way the teacher can be ready to offer support, and you can both make a back-up plan for if it goes poorly and decide a way to communicate later.

All comments in the positive – Following the class, focus on anything positive. Let’s say your child sat by you for 55 minutes and played with legos for 5 minutes. On the drive home it’s good to say, “those legos looked like a lot of fun!” not, “I don’t know why I even take you places, you sat with me so much.”

Avoid overscheduling – This bullet point deserves to be it’s own blog post or three, but here goes, children need downtime. At a minimum, I tend to think an hour of downtime a day, and it can even be great to have whole days of downtime. This is unstructured, go play time. Also though, classes and clubs are great too. Think of building a balance.

Look for patterns – Your child may be more of an independent athlete, rather than enjoying team sports. Your child may be more of a chess club kid than into drama. They may do better with weekday evenings at home, and enjoy classes and sports on the weekends. Note what works and discuss it with your child.

With an older child, it’s fine to agree on a trial period – When it’s available, it’s reasonable to try a new sport, class or instrument for a set period of time and then evaluate. It’s good to stay open and flexible.

All that said, if it’s miserable it can be okay to quit – So you’ve tried several things on the list, and both you and your child are still miserable over them attending a class. It’s fine to drop out. It’s good to discuss the reasons why and consider changes moving forward. Quitting four-year-old swim lessons doesn’t mean they’ll be a quitter for life.

Deciding they don’t like it at the end of an 8 week session isn’t quitting – If your child lets you know they are done with an activity at the end of a session, it’s good to discuss and really listen to and about why. Deciding they’d like to take a break or the activity isn’t for them isn’t quitting, it’s making room for other, preferred activities.

Encouraging Piano Practice

Boy Playing Piano

Dear Dr. Rene,

My seven-year-old son has been taking piano for six months. The first several months came easy to him, and he was happy to practice. Now that the learning is requiring a bit of effort, he grumbles about the practice. How can I encourage him to practice without being all ‘tiger mom’? I’d like to instill a small sense of obligation and self motivation.


Nancy G., mom of 2

Dear Nancy,

It’s great that he enjoyed the first several months, and there are lots of things you might try to encourage ownership and add enjoyment moving forward.

  • Set reasonable expectations and times – At seven years old you might expect 20 minutes a day, five days a week. You could offer to break this into two 10-minute stretches if that fits. It may be helpful to have a chart by the piano where he can check off his practice times.
  • Give choices – It may be helpful to give him choices. Give choices about when to practice, either before or after snack, right after school or right after bath. Give choices about the order of things within, either scales first or review last weeks song.
  • Add fun – As he is practicing, sometimes sit for a recital, sing along with songs, record songs to play back or send songs to others over the phone. Every fourth lesson, our piano teacher would play musical notes UNO with the girls. I think she made the cards herself but the girls loved it.
  • Avoid rewards but occasionally build in things that are related – I’d avoid things like stickers and start charts, but it’s fine to occasionally give related things. As he is practicing, this might be a new piano book or downloading new music. It’s better to give as a surprise, rather than something to work towards.
  • Go on related outings – Take him to see an orchestra. If you are in Northern Virginia, take him to The Fish Market on the early side of piano night. My girls loved going there for an appetizer dinner and listening to everyone sing along with the piano player.
  • Highlight practicing – When the girls were little it took them each about 3 summers of swim lessons to be able to swim across the big pool. We reference that often when it comes to practicing new skills. When Alicen bumped up against multiplication tables in third grade, we compared this to swim lessons. It takes a lot of effort over a period of time to master a new task, but eventually it becomes easy.
  • Swap for practice – Once in a while, you might let him stay up 20 minutes late if he is practicing, or you might let him out of a daily chore for practicing.
  • Give descriptive praise – When you give praise, be sure you are praising his effort, “you learned every note,” process, “you can play those scales so fast,” progress, “you know it better this week than last,” or effort, “you practiced everyday this week.” Avoid praising outcomes, “what a pretty song. I like that!”

Hopefully something in here helps!


Dr. Rene

%d bloggers like this: