Back to school and back to the crazy schedule? Who says you really have to do all the things? Believe it or not, free play, daydreaming and (gasp) even boredom are all just as important for healthy development as playing a musical instrument or studying French.
Remember when going back to school each fall meant a new binder, a fresh ream of college-ruled notebook paper, some new pencils and a box of markers? For many families these days, back to school means back to the craziness. Before you let the wave of constant activities drag you down, think for a moment about how you want to remember this fresh new school year.
Options are overwhelming
The sheer number of after-school clubs, sports, foreign language classes, theater groups, orchestras and art classes that are available to this generation of kids is overwhelming. Many parents begin signing their child up for these extra activities when they are just toddlers, in an attempt to let him “find” his passion. Continuing on into the grade school years — and beyond — you can easily wind up with a child whose passion isn’t limited to just one weekly activity. Parents themselves are sucked in for carpooling, fundraising, preparing snacks, hosting team gatherings or simply being a fan on the sidelines. Many families have entire weekends devoted to the activities their children are involved in, with little time for anything else. Extra activities during the summer are a bit more manageable than they are once school starts up again.
Pick and choose
So how do you really control the number of activities your child is involved in? “We limit our boys to one year-round activity and one seasonal activity,” shares Melanie, whose three boys have been active in Boy Scouts and various sports.
“When there is a scheduling conflict, we help them choose where they are needed most.” This approach may work for some families, but many sports that used to have a specific season have become practically year-round — causing soccer to conflict with baseball or track and field, for example.
So what’s wrong with choosing one activity at a time? Many parents are concerned that their child will fall behind his peers in sports skills. “His friends started soccer when they were 4 years old,” says Jen, mother of a 10-year-old boy. “I feel like we already missed that window of time to try soccer.” Clinical psychologist Paula Bloom understands the pressure parents are feeling over extracurricular activities. “As parents, we’ve got to get over our anxiety that we’re not doing enough,” she says. “Creating a sense of safety, helping kids have confidence to try certain things, those are the things that matter.“
Make time for family
One of the casualties of extracurricular activities is family time. Some may argue that the family is spending time together while on the road to soccer games or between tournament games. When your child is interested in a new activity, your first consideration should be the effect it will have on family time.
As parents, we model for our children what life should look like — a balance of work, play and learning. “Parents need to teach their kids to balance human doing with human being,“ says Bloom. She goes on to say that our kids need to know they’re not defined by what they do. Time to play, rest, daydream or try new things is critical to their sense of well-being, as well as helping them discover their true spirit.
Bring back the play
Can you really bring your family closer together by doing less? Here are a few ideas for how to un-schedule your family a wee little bit.
- Take a fresh look at the sports and activities your child participates in and see how you can scale back. If your son is an avid soccer nut, can he do without spring track and field? Your daughter loves her dance classes, but may be willing to pass on the jazz class that meets three times each week.
- Model a balanced lifestyle. If your job is demanding, make sure to show your kids how you balance that with exercise, family movie nights or simply time to read the newspaper on the front porch. Remember, they are always watching you.
- Make your family time count. Even if your dinners are not always at the same time, make it a point to really connect. One family we know plays a fun card game at the dinner table each night that sparks laughs and conversation. Ask a question, share a story or a favorite memory. These are the things that connect us.
- Beware of parent peer pressure. Some of what drives parents to sign their kids up for activities is peer pressure — from other parents. Are you just jumping on the year-round-soccer bandwagon because “everyone” is doing it? Maybe the better choice for your family isn’t the same as your neighbor’s.
Afraid they’ll be bored? Good. Boredom sparks creativity and imagination, both of which help kids with school work. Now that’s a win-win.