We all know the proverb: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” As I think of the demands placed on children these days, I often worry that we might be raising a generation of Jacks.
When I recall my childhood, I remember spontaneous games of dodge ball and Red Rover in our neighborhood; spending hours in the woods behind our houses exploring tree forts, pretending we were special agents being chased by “bad guys.” We would lie on our backs tracing animal shapes in the clouds; trying to make whistling sounds through blades of grass. Even now, decades later, the sweet smell of honeysuckle in a warm breeze instantly takes me back and I feel a rush of joy remembering that sense of pure freedom. Back then, there was plenty of time for getting lost in imagination and free play.
Today, children’s lives seem more structured and scheduled — dare I say, over-scheduled. It sometimes seems raising children has become a competitive sport. Parents feel pressured to make sure their kids are the best, the brightest, the most athletic, the most artistic. True, there are more opportunities for extra-curricular activities now than when we were kids, but somehow we have been brainwashed into thinking we’re bad parents if we don’t give our children all of those opportunities. How will they succeed if they don’t do it all? As a result, everyday life seems to take place at hyper-speed as we rush our children from one activity to another – school, religious school, organized sports, art lessons, clubs, community service, tutors, etc.
What’s happened to the joy of just being a kid? Children are becoming so used to having all their free time structured for them and guided by rules, how will they develop the internal creative skills they need? Many lack the ability to manage boredom, to “think outside the box,” to create their own happiness, or even to relax.
Our intentions are good, but we may have forgotten the importance of having balance in our lives and we are inadvertently passing that pressure along to our children. This can be a recipe for burn-out and it comes at a cost to kids and families. Fatigue, irritability, anger, trouble concentrating, meltdowns, sleep problems, slipping grades, anxiety, even headaches and stomach aches may well be signs of overload.
As you set schedules and priorities, consider these tips:
Create balance. Cramming a huge number of activities into the school year with the justification that “we’ll get to relax in the summer,” doesn’t work. Throughout the year, it’s important to give kids time to hang out and play with friends. This builds a sense of self and sets patterns for our children’s future relationships. We want our children to feel that they are loved and appreciated for who they are, not just for what they accomplish.
Be a role model. Children need to see that we also value unstructured time and that we make time for the family to slow down and connect with each other.
Trust your instincts. If life feels too hectic and busy, it probably is. Look at what’s filling up the schedule and, maybe even more importantly, what’s missing (like family time and down time). Make some hard (and at times unpopular) decisions about what shifts you can make, what activities you or your child may have to give up, cut back, or delay for now. Work to restore a balance.
Listen to your child, but also pay attention to the non-verbal ques. Ask if your child if he/she feels the days are too busy, or if he/she wishes there was more time to play with friends or just relax after school. Remember, if you’ve been living the overscheduled lifestyle, your child may not realize there’s an alternative and may say everything is fine. So attend to the non-verbal signs of overload which speak volumes and may contradict your child’s words. Be careful not to slip into a rationalization like, “but my child likes doing all these activities.” Children like candy too, but we know too much isn’t good for them, so we limit how much we let them eat. Similarly, if too many activities are overloading your child and your family, you need to set limits because that is what’s best for your child’s well-being.
Before adding another activity, weigh the costs. Consider how this new activity will affect your child and everyone else in the family: financially, emotionally, physically, socially, etc.
Don’t rush to rescue your child from boredom. Make a few suggestions, but let your child figure out what to do with his/her time. This offers the opportunity to develop creativity and problem solving skills which are essential throughout life.
As parents, we want the best for our children. But in this increasingly complex and competitive world, one of the greatest gifts we can give them is the freedom to discover the simple joys and wonders of childhood. Soon enough they will have to settle down in the ordered adult world, but with your help, blissful memories like fireflies, kickball, and family Scrabble games will keep childhood alive in their hearts.