Kidding Ourselves About Kids

Is it any wonder we schedule our kids into activities – an abundance of activities – if our work requires ten hours during the day and another two hours grabbed here or there?

Childhood dreamsThen again, if we over-schedule our children, aren’t we adding to our own logistical headaches?

There’s coordination time, the on-the-road time, the general chaos and commotion that robs us of twenty minutes here and fifteen minutes there, not to mention the out-of-pocket cost for (some) activities – or someone to do the chauffeuring and supervising if we’re unavailable.

If our kids are feeling the pressure from crazy scheduling, doesn’t that impact us? If we’re off-balance from trying to keep them “enriched” with a variety of sports, arts, and academic opportunities, isn’t our stress going to rub off on them?

Bruce Feiler has a few things to say on the issue of the overstuffed childhood, and reasons for keeping our kids “busy” with activities.

Our Over-scheduled Kids?

Mr. Feiler writes in the Times:

First, my wife and I work, so we don’t have the luxury of supervising our daughters’ free time around the clock. These activities, while sometimes costly, give us some peace of mind.

Mr. Feiler elaborates on the issues of what I think of as the Big Bad Busy Train, which go beyond the usual desire to offer children competitive advantages that we might euphemistically refer to as enrichment.

Citing Michael Thompson, psychologist and author of “The Pressured Child:”

“As a general principle, there is a line between a highly enriched, interesting, growth-promoting childhood and an overscheduled childhood,” he said…

The real problem, he said, lies with parents, especially highly successful ones who have a high degree of control over their own lives and who try to take similar control over their children’s lives. This leads them to make choices about after-school activities out of anxiety instead of interest in their child’s well-being.

Anxiety over the child’s best interest.

Can we at least fess up to that one? For those of us who are even remotely in a position to give our kids the competitive edge (just to keep up with the moving “bar”), don’t we worry about what happens if we don’t fill the childhood dance card?

The Crazy Conundrum of the Two Career Family

Whether you consider your paying working a job or a career, if there are two adults in the picture and two incomes, you’re juggling the parenting duties. You may work out arrangements that vary over time or at different points in the year. You may have the advantage of other family members to assist, or the means to cover paid assistance for pickups, errands, and supervising the extracurriculars and learning-oriented “play” that children are involved in.

Overwhelmed BoyStill, I’m guessing your schedule is a headache and a half, at least in part because the desire to enrich the childhood experience is strong, “expert-approved,” and the very anxiety that Mr. Feiler mentions is heightened by the increasing sense of competitiveness that starts as early as preschool.

Don’t we agree this is a little crazy? Wouldn’t we prefer more moderation – not only so there’s less stress for parents but more play time for kids?

The One-Parent Family

For the single parent (who shares parenting across households) and in particular for the solo parent, these issues potentially become even more of a headache – especially if you’re outnumbered, if finances are tight, or you have a work situation that requires unusual hours or travel.

Households with children run well on routine; when our routines as working parents are variable or challenging, our ability to deal with the logistics of a child’s non-school schedule is negatively impacted.

In my own case, I dodged that bullet longer than many of my mothering peers and even before I became a solo mom, as I refused to put my children in four and five activities a week. (Please note – the other mothers raised an eyebrow and I ignored it.) It wasn’t until my children were in middle school that I allowed activities, and then I kept it to two (maximum) for each child.

At What Point is Enrichment Helpful?

Understandably, we want our children exposed to a variety of enriching activities from an early age. I’m a firm believer in the critical importance of early childhood education. But as Mr. Feiler’s article indicates, the issue is how much, and I would add – at what cost?

At what cost to the parents running themselves ragged? At what cost to kids feeling pressure to perform far too young, and not allowed “free time” for imagination and true play? What about the extent to which we are trying to force an impossible schedule for our ourselves as well as our families? And at what cost financially?

Are we willing – and able – to assess the real value of our kids’ activities at various points in time? Are we able to express our opinions – to schools, for example – when the expectations of participation are extreme and not necessarily in the child’s best interests?

Facing Who Our Kids Are

I certainly believe that when we see our kids struggle in an area – developmentally or academically, we need to address the issue. We want our children to become their best selves, of course. That may mean sacrifice and compromise on our parts, which is the norm for most of the parents I know, for example, dealing with a learning disability.

Likewise, when we see that our children have special talents and interests in specific areas, whatever they may be – music, sports, sciences – if we can facilitate that interest, what parent won’t go out of his or her way to do so?

Admittedly, high school is a whole other ballgame, especially when some activities (a sport for one, band or orchestra for another) require near daily and frequently weekend participation. That in itself is a problem, in my view, but another discussion. Yet part of the discussion is whether or not all kids belong on the college track, forced into that track, whether or not it suits them, especially given the exorbitant expense of higher education.

Speaking Up, Taking Action

Where’s the answer? I don’t have a simple solution; it was tough enough negotiating with myself (and my children) for the 20 years they lived under my roof. But I believe there’s value in that negotiation process, rather than an assumption that we must enroll them in every activity they show the slightest interest in, every element of “resume building” from the time they turn 10 or 12, not to mention scheduling all their time due to our work schedules.

The “village” concept, discussed so much some years ago, hasn’t lost its relevance, with or without children around the home. Pooling resources at all stages can be helpful on a human level as well as logistically and financially.

Family with Three Little BoysThat said, we have many areas of opportunity, including flexible work arrangements, raising the bar on early childhood education, and availability of affordable programs at public schools so a safe place is provided for the afternoon hours (until six at least) – in middle school, not just elementary.

We need structural as well cultural changes in organizations so employers don’t just speak “family friendly” but act on it. And certainly, we need more fathers joining the fight for family-friendly employment environments.

Naturally, there are political issues to address, but not in this discussion at this moment.

The Blueprint for Family Goals

In his recent post on establishing family goals, Scott Behson, PhD reminds us of the value of a blueprint. When constructing a building, the blueprint identifies spaces, their functions, their relative priorities and more. While Scott uses the blueprint for discussing work and family goals in the context of the two-parent family, with at least one spouse in a traditional employment role, his metaphor is ideal regardless of family configuration and work.

If anything, the principles he recommends are even more critical for the solo parent with multiple children. The difference? Discuss and negotiate with your co-parent if he or she is in the picture, but more than anything – discuss and negotiate with your children.

It works. I’ve done it. That doesn’t mean it’s simple or a One Stop Shop solution. But if you can, start when they’re young – they get it! Be willing to compromise, and know that the discussion (and outcomes) will evolve over time.

Let’s not kid ourselves that the crazy way millions of us are juggling doesn’t trickle down and stress our children to the max. These issues aren’t fixed easily or via any single dimension, but they may well be improved by working multiple approaches simultaneously.

Did you know that October is National Work and Family Month? Learn more here, and also about “One Million For Work Flexibility.”


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  1. lunaboogie says

    I am remembering a conversation I had, years ago, with my cousin. Our daughters were the same age – 3 – both enrolled in ballet, and after a month, both girls were balking at going. I told my cousin my strategy: that my daughter had badly wanted ballet classes, that we had gone to a class to observe and then decide if she wanted to do it, and she made a commitment to go every week. So when she balked, I reminded her of this and told her that we had paid money for the class and she had wanted to go and agreed to go and we were going. Even if she didn’t dance, we were going and we were going to watch. And we did. When I offered this solution to my cousin, she that wouldn’t work for her. She had never given her daughter the choice of taking ballet or not. By the time my cousin’s child was in high school, she played and took piano lessons, played the flute in band, and was on the swim, softball, basketball, track and soccer teams. At some point in her junior year she stood up for herself and said enough and cut back to only one sport.

    I am remembering another conversation my husband had with another mom – a career scientist in charge of her own lab, an MD PHD with high expectations for her children – about extracurricular activities. The kids were in the 2nd grade. Our child had violin lessons. her child had violin lessons, art class, soccer, softball, girls choir – essentially something going on after school every day of the week. This woman came away thinking that maybe, maybe her child was a bit over scheduled and my husband wondered if we were giving our daughter enough after school enrichment. (By the time this girl was in high school she had dropped everything and began to rebel in other ways).

    Every child is different. Some seem to be able to handle a stuffed schedule and certainly this can help parents with after school childcare. My daughter was very clear in her need for downtime. She already felt pressured in school (her own desire for straight A’s in order to be a valedictorian, and all those AP classes) and she had stayed with violin, playing in a prestigious orchestra and traveling for competitions. She knew her limits.

    Sometimes it is just easier to make decisions for our children based on parent need. But it serves our children better to observe and listen so parent and child can both decide on what is enough and what is too much.

  2. says

    Thanks for citing my work.

    As for my 8 year old son’s activities. We have a policy of:
    ONE major activity and
    ONE minor activity

    That’s it.

    For now, this means his fairly competitive gymnastics on Fridays, and the “Mad Science” afterschool program on Tuesdays. Once Mad Science is over, we may do some low-key swimming or tennis lessons.

    One of my son’s best friends is in soccer, karate and 2 different afterschool programs. I think his parents are crazy!!!
    Scott Behson recently posted…One Million for Work FlexibilityMy Profile

  3. says

    I think I kind of lucked out (and also was kind of already so-inclined), in that my kid is just not a lots-of-activities kid. He couldn’t handle it, he wouldn’t like it, and he was able to, from a very young age, clearly articulate that he needed a lot of alone time after the pressure of controlling his (very social) self at school. Now, I did make him stick with fencing a full year and a half past his expiration date, but it was a good lesson for us both: him, to see he could continue doing something he didn’t like, and even apply extra effort (private lesson added), and survive. For me, to see that my son was actually a pretty good judge of what he had just finished with — the competitive aspect of the sport becomes paramount, and for him, bouting wasn’t any fun because he didn’t have the passion to be precise (and precision? C’est tout in fencing). My son really thrives with coming home from school, settling into his homework — which has taken a big leap forward in difficulty and volume this year, with fifth grade — and knowing it’s all “done.” Then he has a few hours to just hang out, let loose, and beg me to let him watch television (Nope). I do still wish he had an athletic pursuit, but you know, that’s just not his thing. That’s why I got a dog. Now chasing Jake and being chased by Jake are a core activity that takes up much of his time — but doesn’t require any scheduling. Here’s to free-range kids. They have to figure it out for themselves eventually, and for my kid, that was sooner rather than later.
    Stacy @bklynstacy recently posted…Bliss ExplosionMy Profile

    • D. A. Wolf says

      Ah Stacy, That “hang out, let loose” time… Your son is fortunate to have it, you’re smart to let him, and in some locations it’s definitely a little easier! It’s kind of sad how much more difficult it is to have a “free-range” kid nowadays.

  4. says

    Y’all might think I’m crazy, but none of my kids are in ANY activities at the moment. They have tons of school work, they are in magnet schools and it’s tough, so they don’t want to do anything after school. They love their down time. It makes my life easier for sure. When I was running around between scouts, piano and gymnastics it was exhausting after working all day. Then I realized that they were complaining about having to go to these activities and I dropped them all. They haven’t missed them a bit.

  5. says

    I am mother to three children, age 5, 7, 9 and stepmother to girls ages 14, 16. Our household is busy in just the basic routines of two working parents and school schedules PLUS the shared dynamic of co-parenting and time with the other parent(s). We encourage the children to try new things in very limited and low commitment ways … we’ve spent some time in soccer, basketball and cheerleading for the youngers and the older girls have had their try of dance, music lessons, etc. They have settled into academic pursuits with IB/AP classes in high school, choir, musicals – all of which require less full time commitment. We share the ride situation with their mother and at this age a parent isn’t required to be present throughout the activity.

    My younger three are in zero extracurricular activities beyond church and Boy Scouts. Their bio dad picks them up and takes them to scouts for one meeting, one hour five minutes from home each week. We are considering adding a gymnastics class once per week, but I’m leery – I just guard our downtime and home time so much! Routine, outdoor time to wander, “white space” to imagine are so important to me!

    Sometimes, I wonder if their missing out … but more often I’m grateful that our boundaries are so clear!
    Missy Robinson recently posted…Family MattersMy Profile

    • says

      PS – my husband is a high school soccer coach and watches consistently that boys, even ones who earn scholarships, drop out of soccer after one year of college because they’ve been pushed so hard for so long…there is no fun left in it! The guys play club soccer, school soccer, summer soccer camps, etc. When they get away from home and realize there is more to life, that’s when they feel they’ve missed out on so much!
      Missy Robinson recently posted…Family MattersMy Profile

    • D. A. Wolf says

      I think you’re so wise with that “low commitment” approach to exploring. Five kids to juggle! My hat is off to you, Missy!

      (And those IB courses get really really tricky in the last two years of high school. We went down that road around here. Worth it, but so much work for the kids!)

  6. says


    I am a firm believer in “boredom.” As a child, I do not remember my parents shuffling me from one activity to another. There were many days when I read and played in my room. Of course, there were moments that I felt bored, but I realize that those were opportunities to try and cultivate stillness and rest. With the advent of technology and the surround sound of stimuli everywhere, I strive to let my daughter feel bored.
    Rudri Bhatt Patel @ Being Rudri recently posted…Life Is Both Glorious & WretchedMy Profile

  7. says

    This is our family right now, to a t. I tried to get rid of 2 activities of my 9 year old daughter’s this year, only to see 2 grow in – seemingly overnight – to replace them. It’s gotten so bad that she recently had a day off school b/c of a teacher strike and did nothing but play and I had to ask myself: hmmm…what was so different about this day from all the others? Am re-thinking my re-thinking on all of this, but of course, like everything in parenting, it starts at the top.
    Thx for this
    Delia Lloyd

  8. says

    I just thought so much of this piece; I particularly support the idea of negotiating with kids from even the youngest ages. Everything works better when there’s the feeling of co-owning a decision and while it’s tough to balance activity with capacity it’s a good goal. We did this with our kids from the beginning and now that they’re adults, they seem to have a healthy respect for both productive life, and down time. Too many adults can’t do that – permit themselves to relax without the feeling that they’re shirking some other responsibility.

    • D. A. Wolf says

      I couldn’t agree more on co-owning a decision when possible. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Susan.

  9. says

    Good points, well made. My kid’s school when they were in kindergarten and elementary would only allow them to do one after school activity per week. There was a lot of sense in that – the other four nights they could just… be kids.
    Very often parents live their childhood and teenage years vicariously through their own kids and so called development activities become substitute babysitting services. Easily done especially for single parents.
    From time to time all parents have to step back and take stock of their own motives. It’s easy to do some self brain washing!
    Dorothy Dalton recently posted…Why there’s only one new year’s resolution to make in job searchMy Profile

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