Do you sometimes feel like a personal assistant to your kids? Do you find it necessary to maintain an “event calendar” to keep straight all the days and times of their activities? If you answered “Yes” to either of these questions, then you are like me and fall into the category of parent chauffer, secretary, waiter, personal shopper, and valet. Sometimes I think the old term “manservant” perhaps fits even better for me, but I think I would draw the line at donning a tuxedo and watching the Titanic go down with those I serve (as did some of those faithful ones on the doomed vessel) because I’d be too busy throwing them into the lifeboat.
In a recent poll of children ages 9-13, Kids Health asked questions about “Being Busy” and the idea of “free time.” A whopping 90% said “they felt stressed because they were too busy.” In this same survey, 61% of the kids express the need for more free time. While this may surprise some people – including many parents who schedule their kids like they were business executives – some of us have seen this coming for a long time, and maybe now is a good time for some clarity in regards to what we are doing to children before and after school and on vacations.
“Many overscheduled kids are anxious, angry and burned out,” notes child psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., co-author of The Overscheduled Child. This is not surprising. Having been spoon-fed the need to do as many things in as many categories as possible, kids have accepted their parents’ philosophy that they must “be busy” in order to find fulfillment. We parents are guilty of pushing the activity envelope, and then curse our misfortune of having to negotiate how we get the kids to everything.
I see this with my own family. Faced with the daunting prospect of nine or ten weeks of summer vacation, my wife and I started talking about camps, schools, and programs to fill in the gaps. I began thinking of my own parents – who never did anything of the sort. They gave us freedom to play all day, but they also reminded us to “read some books” along the way. I have never enjoyed reading as much as I did during those years. While I enjoyed playing as much as the next kid, I liked to shut down too and find a quiet place for my reading. I got to read everything from A Tale of Two Cities to War and Peace to The Sun Also Rises. My real love of books and literature never came from an English class but developed during those long summers. I especially remember being happy on rainy days sitting on the porch with some of the greatest stories ever told.
During this last school year we have had to deal with scheduling gymnastics, soccer, swimming, ice skating, dance classes, piano lessons, and drama club. There are some weeks when there are activities on every evening (even the sacred Friday night), and then there are games, events, shows, and recitals on Saturdays and Sundays. We can sometimes face seven days of non-stop scheduling, and the sturm und drang that takes place when activities collide (and how we decide which one we will miss or be late attending). If you think it only happens in Disney movies, you haven’t seen your child running into an auditorium taking off one uniform while putting on another.
The thing we haven’t spoken about yet is school. Most of the time these activities are after school, meaning homework and studying get pushed to later in the day or well into the evening or night. My newly teenage daughter (13) has found herself between Scylla and Charybdis when it comes to getting her work done, studying for tests, and attending practices, events, and games. While I want school to be the priority, competition, teamwork, and the all too valued championship trophy seem to loom larger in the adolescent mind.
Of course, I have to keep reminding myself that if not for my wife and me we wouldn’t be in this predicament. We disgruntled parents of overscheduled kids are not part of the solution but part of the problem. We’re all members of the same, sorry club. I am reminded of the famous Groucho Marx line: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” Sometimes when I get really frazzled, an alternate Groucho one-liner comes to mind: “I’ve got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.” In this case I just exchange “you” with “myself” and I’m good to go.
As for this upcoming summer, we have decided on a revolutionary approach that will boggle the mind – we are not putting the kids in anything scheduled. For the first time they are going to be free as I was as a child. Yes, we will go swimming, visit museums, and take the family vacation. Along the way we will get some school work in, and I am hoping that reading books on their own will become a habit as it did with me.
We parents have pushed our kids to do all sorts of activities, many of which they probably would not have chosen on their own. When you start children on a course when they are three or four, they are in no position to say they don’t want to go to dance class or to play soccer anymore. They have become so accustomed to going, and the years pass and there is the unspoken expectation that the kids believe we want them to continue on that course. We keep taking them, and this pressure obviously can and does get to them. If your overscheduled child comes home with a “C” on a math test, look in the mirror for the person to blame.
We lavish gifts on our children and pay for all these activities, but have lost sight of the one thing we can give our kids that they need most: free time! Free time is when kids get to build skyscrapers in their imaginations, live in castles, be knights in shining armor and princesses, and fly balloons or throw or kick balls until the streetlights come on. I look back on my childhood summers and after school moments and savor the time my parents gave, and that is a precious gift that keeps on giving to this day.
I’m not saying we have to stop everything our kids do, but it makes sense to start thinking about how much is too much. The best thing you can do is sit down, talk to your children, and ask them how they really feel. Tell them with sincerity that you will not mind if they stop one, two, or more activities, and let them know that you want them to do well in school but also the priority is for them to be healthy and happy. They may be surprised if you do this, but maybe you will be even more surprised by what they have to say to you.
Photo credits: mindfulexposurebook.com, am satire.blogspot.com, yummymummyclub.com, she knows.com
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