Each fall when our kids were young, my husband and I would make an elaborate grid with each kid’s name (there are four of them) going down the left side and the days of the work week going across the top. Then we would fill in what each child would be doing each day after school: soccer practice, Girl or Boy Scouts, dance lessons, after-school homework club, etc. With both of us working, we needed to know that our children would be safe and occupied until one of us got home.
Then we discovered we should feel guilty. All this structured play and activity, according to some experts, was depriving our kids of developing social skills, stunting their creativity, stressing their psyches, and guaranteeing that they would never learn to organize their own time. Ideally, said these same experts, children should have lots of unstructured playtime to use their imaginations and to figure out for themselves how to get along with others. Adults shouldn’t organize and manage every minute. Kids, said the experts, need time to just be kids.
Fine. I agree. But it’s not so simple. The demands of the work world are simply not compatible with relaxed, unscheduled afternoons at home for parents and children to hang out together. Most families with young children have to figure out how to keep their kids safe, occupied, and more happy than not in the late afternoons and during school breaks while parents work.
Some parents hold their breath and let kids stay home alone (please see Children Who Are Home Alone). But for those unable or unwilling to do that due to children’s ages or safety concerns, and for those without extended family or childcare to fill in the blanks, patchworking a variety of activities is the only other option. How do we make sure our kids are occupied and avoid feeling, or being, guilty for doing so? What’s a working parent to do?
Scheduling vs. “Pushing”
Much of the research that warns against “overscheduling” actually is concerned with the negative effects of too much parental pressure for achievement. It’s not about the scheduling. It’s about the dangers of pushing kids to be excellent in everything at all times.
Parents who see every activity as a contest for superiority, who insist that their kids be the best, and who constantly criticize any effort that doesn’t result in a prize, can make their kids and themselves into nervous wrecks. Children in these families tend to give up anything they can’t excel in and constantly compare themselves to everyone else. Their self-esteem becomes too tied to accomplishments. Parents of these children often measure their own status by their children’s successes. It’s a setup for constant tension between parent and child. Ironically, by focussing so much on winning, these families often lose the simple pleasures of being with other people and doing things for the joy of it.
Participation in an activity doesn’t have to be equated with pressure to be the best. One of our daughters, for example, was lucky to find a dance studio that emphasized the value of self-expression through dance rather than dance competitions. She spent many relaxed afternoons hanging out with her friends, watching each others’ lessons, and doing a little homework while she waited for her turn. Yes, there was a troupe for those who wanted to do the competition thing but not everyone felt pushed to be part of that elite group. The owner of the studio understood that not every kid who takes lessons is headed for stardom and that there is a place for just dancing for its own sake.
Another mom I know was delighted when one of her sons joined the track team so he could learn to pole vault. His coach understood that he was trying it out, not trying to be champion. He gave him time to work on the skill without insisting he compete until and unless he felt ready. The result? For three months, her son practiced and practiced after school until he could get over that bar with ease. His coach was more interested in kids feeling good about their own accomplishments than in winning. Not surprisingly, his team often wins.