Organized activities are beneficial, but kids need downtime, too.
“OK,” I said at the end of a recent session. “Let's get your next appointment scheduled. How about two weeks from today?”
“That won't work,” Mom said, scrolling through her phone. “My son has baseball at 5:00, and my daughter has dance at 6:30.”
“How about the following week?”
“Soccer camp,” Mom said. “But we're free two weeks after that.”
“Wait,” Dad said. “The kids have youth group that night. Maybe Wednesday the next week…”
A common theme for this column is finding balance in our lives as parents, families, individuals and couples. Parents often struggle to make sure kids don't miss out on experiences while also trying to find downtime so everybody can just hang out at home.
No family starts the month by saying, “How can we drive ourselves to the brink of exhaustion?” It just sneaks up on them. You want your child to experience Little League because you enjoyed it as a kid, and then there are those great Scout memories, and sure, you never took tuba lessons as a third-grader but what if your son has a natural aptitude for it? And what if first-grade indoor soccer looks good to a high-school coach? How can we cheat our kids out of that opportunity just because we're too lazy to drive them across town?
A few years later, many of these well-meaning parents see me for couples counseling, wondering where they drifted apart. What happened was several years of dinners eaten from a bag while sitting in the car, hoping softball practice ends in time to pick up Junior from his tutoring session at the library.
Too much running around isn't good for kids, either. They move from one structured activity to another, rushing to get dinner and do homework and go to bed somewhat on time. They lose the chance to just hang out and be kids, to play games with you, to play games with each other and even to come up with creative ways to get in trouble. (That's frustrating for parents in the short term but good for them in the long run.)
Kids also miss the chance to develop important executive functioning skills. It may be hard to believe, but much of what we know about dealing with people in the adult world comes from disputes with our friends when we were 8 years old. Children learn how to understand and resolve conflicts by actually having conflicts.
It's also not unusual for parents to complain about not feeling connected with their teenagers. It's easy to lose touch with your kids when they're bonding with coaches while you watch from your car in the parking lot or from the benches at the natatorium.
But you don't want to go too far in the other direction, either. Kids benefit from organized activities and sports; they just need a good balance of extracurriculars with downtime dedicated to doing nothing (during which they will quickly figure out how to entertain themselves).
Balance is everything in parenting. Our family's rule (which we fudged from time to time) was one outside activity per season. You could be on the swim team or do speech and drama club, but you didn't do both. I wanted them to occasionally tell me they were bored; that forced them to be creative to entertain themselves, and it forced them to develop relationships with friends and each other.
I remember a good friend showing me her family calendar while our kids played in the other room (for 10 minutes) before they left for dance class. It looked like frantic chickens had stomped all over it in a rainstorm. I glanced at the chicken scratch, then back at her and asked, “Aren't you tired?”
She slumped against her refrigerator. “I'm sooooo exhausted,” she said.
We've all been there, but you don't have to drive yourself to the point of sobbing in the kitchen. Take a break. Give the kids a break, too. You'll all be better off.
Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.
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