Our weekly schedule typically looks like this: get up, go to work/school, come home from work/school, do your choice of activity around the house, eat dinner, have family time (we go for walks or read books), and go to bed. On weekends, it’s much the same. And I love it. To be honest, when I see pictures of your kids at soccer/swim/football/dance/gymnastics/music practice, or some sort of sports tournament all day on a weekend, I breathe a big sigh of relief that my kids do basically nothing.
Here’s the thing: while it’s true that I might be lazy and cheap, it’s also true that more and more child development experts are noticing questionable effects of packed schedules.
In a study on the effects of less-structured time and children’s executive functioning by the University of Denver, researchers found that children with more free time in their schedules might benefit from better-developed life skills.
“Executive functions (EFs), are the cognitive control processes that regulate thought and action in support of goal-directed behavior. EFs develop dramatically during childhood and support a number of higher-level cognitive processes, including planning and decision-making, maintenance and manipulation of information in memory, inhibition of unwanted thoughts, feelings, and actions, and flexible shifting from one task to another. The more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning.“
Clinical practitioners are seeing more and more young children with some sort of diagnosis, such as depression, anxiety, Oppositional-Defiant Disorder, and ADHD, and are wondering if multiple activities and little down time are partially to blame.
Studies have also shown, however, that extracurriculars can be a good thing.
“As Maureen Weiss, Ph.D., at the University of Oregon, and other researchers have shown, children who are involved in such activities reap important benefits. Involvement in sports, for example, is correlated with higher levels of self-confidence and academic performance, more involvement with school, fewer behavior problems and lower likelihood of taking drugs or engaging in risky sexual behavior.”
So where does that leave us? If you are swamped with children’s activities, or are contemplating signing up for your first one, here are some things to consider:
WHO ASKED FOR THE ACTIVITY?
Did your toddler ask to be enrolled in a Mommy-and-Me class? Did your 5-year-old beg for cello lessons? Do you drag your child to choir/football/chess? Are you bribing your child to practice more often or for longer periods of time?
“When parenting is less about the child and their experience of childhood, and more about the parents’ idea of what childhood should be, we have leapt the tracks of what bringing up a child is really about.” – Dr. Shefali Tsabary, author of “The Awakened Family”
Very often, the activities that children participate in are rooted in their parents’ idea of what is “interesting,” “fun,” or “good for them.” The child, meanwhile, has just been brought along for the ride. Allow your children to follow their own passions instead of your own. “But what if he/she doesn’t realize they like soccer/football/violin until they are older and are ‘behind’ the curve?” First, ask what need of yours is being fulfilled by having a child who is “ahead of the curve.” Then, remember that real passion and motivation to improve one’s ability comes from a deep and authentic interest in what you do. Children who participate in an activity because it brings them sincere joy will most likely continue with that activity (and will improve on their own rather than at prompting from you) than children whose activities were decided for them or who were forced to participate.
DOES YOUR CHILD HAVE TIME TO BE?
Children need unstructured time to cultivate a relationship with themselves, and others. Unstructured time provides children with the opportunity to draw, read, imagine, create, play, and explore new interests. It provides them opportunities to manage their own time (a skill they will desperately need as they grow older), and make their own decisions. This down-time helps children to develop a better sense of self and what brings them joy. Childhood can be a wonderful opportunity for self-discovery.
In addition to becoming more self-aware, children also need time to connect with those around them. Family dinners, outside play with neighbors, and stories before bed help deepen relationships that a child will lean on as they grow older.
ARE YOU HAPPY?
How often do you get to focus on an activity that you enjoy? Do you resent feeling rushed, stressed, or financially strapped because of all the things on your schedule? When was the last time you had some down-time with your partner, a friend, or even your children? Is your schedule full because it feels like it “should” be, or because you genuinely enjoy every single thing on your plate?
Make a list of the values that you consider important to your family. Is your schedule reflective of those values? Think about what you would do with a free Saturday. How can you incorporate more of the things on that list into every weekend?
CAN YOU FIND BALANCE?
Neither a schedule devoid of activities, or a schedule packed with them, is the answer. Each family has to balance their time in the way that feels right for them. If your family has few outside commitments, and you have the time, energy, and money to spend on an extracurricular, go for it. If you feel exhausted by how much is on your plate, ask your children 1) if they even want to continue activities, and 2) if they have a favorite. It’s okay to scale back.
In our family, both my husband and I have jobs, so any activities our kids participate in have to be after school, AT the school, so that they can go to aftercare until we leave work. Our 6 year old participates in Girl Scouts one day per week, our 8 year old does an after-school art class one day per week, and our 13 year old decided to take a break from Girls Choir last year and has a free schedule. We don’t discourage activities, but we do consciously limit our commitments so that our kids (and us grownups!) have lazy weekends and family time in the evenings. As they get older, I assume they’ll want to branch out and pursue more of their interests, and we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. But, for now, it sure is nice to have coffee in bed on a Saturday morning while the kids watch cartoons.