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?

Then 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.

Still, 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.

That 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.”