As parents we want our children to have access to things we didn’t have ourselves. We don’t want them to lack anything, we want them to have the toys we never had, the bikes we never owned, the lessons we weren’t allowed to take. I think that’s a normal want. However, I think we’ve overcompensated by giving our children everything in the name of exposing them to as much as possible so they’ll become well-rounded and have enough experience to find their talents and vocations.
At the age of five, my daughter’s best friend was shuttled from school to gymnastics, tap dancing, piano, or ballet depending on the day. Sometimes she had two classes. She had great social skills, she was indeed, lucky enough to be doing a variety of things so that she would learn what she enjoyed doing, but she was five. After seven hours of school five days a week, was adding another hour and a half to two hours to her schedule necessary?
By contrast, my daughter had one sport (soccer that year) and one activity (Girl Scouts). There were days those felt like too much. After school she had to do her homework and get that out of the way. Some nights that took three hours. Then there was dinner and some playtime before a bath and bed. On soccer or Scout nights she sometimes didn’t finish her homework before we left for those things and she had to do it after dinner. Which meant she got little playtime, little downtime and was visibly stressed.
I can’t even imagine her friend’s full schedule. I did say the child had great social skills. I should have said “when she wasn’t tired”. Her attention span also suffered. Just as she was getting into something, her schedule changed. She had too many things to think about and pay attention to and eventually she couldn’t focus on school. She seemed to roll with it for months, but eventually she was a cranky little girl.
I met her mother, as well as her nanny. Her nanny had more time with her than her mother did because her mother spent a lot of time at work. Why? Well, because having a child in so many activities was a sign of success for her. The more she could pay for her daughter to do, the better she was providing, right?
Not necessarily. While we should strive to give our kids opportunities to do a variety of things and encourage them to try new things and wander outside of their comfort zones, we need to be aware that we can push them too hard and too far. Children thrive on unstructured playtime which gives them the opportunity to use their imaginations, play act adult roles, and act out things they learn in school or even the troubles they’re having. Simply learning to play with other children increases their reasoning abilities, social skills and problem solving skills. Having time to play with their siblings gives them a chance to learn cooperation and time to work through sibling rivalry issues.
Time with Mom and Dad is valuable as well. Children learn all the time: listening to you tell stories of your childhood or their own, reading to you, helping you cook, playing a game, they’re learning all sorts of things. What they’re learning the most from time with you is how valuable they are as people. It means more to a child that Dad put down his briefcase and played a game than it does that Dad paid for basketball camp.
Watch your children. If they’re often tired or irritable, or suddenly start complaining about having to go to a lesson or class that they previously enjoyed they may be doing too much. There’s nothing wrong with limiting their extracurricular activity to one or two things. If they’ve been taking lessons and classes you’ve heard which ones they enjoy and which ones they’re going to because you or your spouse wanted them to try it or because so-and-so from school was doing it.
When I was a child I remember hearing “You asked to do this, you’re not quitting!” There is really no harm in letting a child have a say in what he or she does. Your child will learn to schedule his time and to spend free time doing things he enjoys. By having a discussion with your child he’ll also be learning that you value his opinion and that you trust him to make decisions about his life.
In the end, we all want smart, well-rounded, talented and happy children. What we need to do is learn to help them develop their gifts without crushing their spirits.