When parents sign up for ice skating lessons on Thursdays and yoga on Mondays they have the best interest of their child in mind. But the constant running and shlepping to after-school activities can be draining for parents and in fact, harmful to children. (Not to mention the expense of class fees, sports uniforms and meals purchased on the go, rather than prepared at home.)
“We’re stealing from them downtime and time to fart around and accomplish nothing and have fun,” said Wendy Mogel, clinical psychologist and author of the popular Jewish parenting tome, “The Blessing of A Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children” (Penguin Compass, 2001).
Enemy No. 1 in the battle to protect our children’s best interests is the lack of unstructured playtime. “Kids do need down time to see what they gravitate to besides the television,” said Lenore Skenazy, mother of two boys and author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry)” (Jossey-Bass, 2010).
Skenazy’s free-range movement is about common-sense parenting and giving kids the freedom to be well, kids.
“You can’t discover stuff if it’s all presented on a platter as an educational activity,” she said. Children need the opportunity to explore and discover hobbies and activities on their own terms.
Lily Langer, a mother of four in Scarsdale and part-time export manager, limits after-school activities to one per semester for each child. She didn’t let her sixth grader try out for the town’s traveling softball team. “It’s 25 games, it’s a lot of traveling and there are so many other things you could be doing,” she told him. “I’m a huge believer in opening the front door and letting the child play outside.”
Devra Renner, a social worker who is co-author of “Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most and Raise Happier Kids,” had one client who found an adapter for her crockpot that plugged into her minivan. “If you are cooking in your car and you think having an adapter for the car is brilliant, then that’s a definite sign” that you need to scale back those activities, she said.
Moderation is a word associated with diet but it can also be applied to our child’s enrichment. “Somehow we’ve gotten into this world where good is the new bad,” said Renner. “You can have a good amount of activities; you don’t have to have the most excellent amount of activities.”
One way to reduce the stress in your home is to color-code your family’s activities on a large wipe-off calendar, recommends Renner. Assign a color to each parent, child and another one for family time. “Then when you look at it you can see who is really overscheduled,” said Renner. “You have a visual key there. It also helps you figure out, wait we’re not getting any family time.”
Choose activities that work into your schedule. “I pick the ones that are the most convenient and check off the most things I want to accomplish,” said Susan Marder, a mother of seven and clinical social worker for 11 years at the Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck. She chooses ones at school, where she can easily form a carpool, or reserves activities for Sundays.
She also recommends making the most of the chosen activity to reduce the frenzy.
“What’s your attitude while you’re doing these things and how can you best utilize the time?” she said.
Take advantage of travel time to ask your child about his or her day. Make sandwiches before an evening baseball game and have a picnic beforehand.
Tzippy Cohen, a mother of three living on the Upper West Side, packs after-school activities into the beginning of the week. On Thursdays and Fridays her children come home after school. “I don’t want to feel hurried, but I don’t want them to miss out on these activities,” she said. “This is the way I found that works for us.”
Protect your child’s bedtime, advises Mogel. “Parents need to be valiant and courageous defenders of their children’s spirit and energy,” she said. Assign a homework deadline by which time all homework must be completed.
Make sure parents get enough rest, too. “It creates a really cranky country where we all just need a nap because we’re overscheduled,” said Renner.
No parent wants their children to look back on their youth and remember mom and dad screaming, “Put on your shoes, we’re going to be late.”
“It’s not about you running ragged,” said Dr. Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center and professor of psychology and child psychiatry. “It’s about time together.”
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