Are We Robbing Our Kids (of their childhoods)?

Have you noticed that one school year barely ends before we are asked to commit to next year’s activities? The snow has barely melted here in New England with our first few warm days of Spring and already we’re planning for the summer and early stages of school year 2011-2012. Mind boggling!

Coordinating one child’s activities is often overwhelming with activities occurring late in the day and with most kids participating in multiple activities each week that that push the limits of even the most organized of schedule keepers. Add to the mix multiple children in a family and working parents and it’s easy to see why so many families feel so frayed these days. Perhaps it’s time we stopped the clock and found a way to reclaim some sanity in all our lives. We had sanity in our lives as kids. Wouldn’t it be great if our kids had a touch of some as well?

What do you remember about your childhood? Most of us had a parent at home, usually our moms. Today, many parents work and their children spend time in after-school programs or with childcare providers at their homes. It was rare to have too many activities in elementary school and weekends and school vacations were considered sacred. We also benefited from a more secure feeling in the world and had a great deal of unstructured time to just be kids. Most of us were well into high school before we became “serious” about an activity; our children are pushed to “specialize” when barely in double digits ages. The world seemed slower and families seemed more content.

Children need enrichment but extracurricular activities are only one way to provide that. Structured activities do keep kids physically and mentally fit and teach discipline, time management and how to work with other people. They also help build a child’s self esteem, offer an outlet for stress and can be great fun. Yet child development experts all agree that kids in general are too overstructured and on overload. The kind of enrichment kids desperately need is right in our own homes.

“Kids should be allowed to be kids”, wrote Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, a nationally renowned child psychiatrist and author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap. “A parent has to decide what’s appropriate, when to say no, and what really matters…Be unproductive with your kids – play Monopoly, shoot hoops, take a walk, listen to music – anything that you both enjoy that has no goal. This convinces your kids that they’re important, that who they are, not what they create, matters. And that really helps self-esteem.”

Keep in mind that any thing you schedule for your child is an activity and takes away from family time – and that includes playdates and time spent with other families. The best rule of thumb is the younger the child the less organized activity they need. The preteen and teenage years are when kids will naturally start to focus and gravitate towards their true passions. What are those true passions? Only our children can answer that question and our passions may not be their passions. Our job is to help them find the path that makes their dreams for themselves come true.

Our children will cue us when they are on overload. Keep an eye out for mood changes, fatigue, a change in school performance, inability to complete homework, a change in sleep pattern or appetite, physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches, or becoming resistant to attending an activity or practicing for it. All kids have off days, just like we do as adults. However, if your child seems to be more off than on, give him a breather and consult your doctor. Your child’s coaches and teachers can also be a wonderful resource to help determine what your child needs.

Likely the most important area to monitor is overall family harmony. Lack of real family time, bickering among family members or new strains in a marriage are all red flags that the mix is off for your family. Ask yourself when the last time you all had dinner together or just hung out as a family. Ideally, you’ll be able to recall at least one moment a week that is just for your family. Being in the same car together really is no substitute for true undistracted time together. So, before you say “yes” again to a new activity, including donating your time, make sure it is not at the expense of what is really important – your family’s happiness.

A few years ago, Dr. Rosenfeld endorsed a grassroots effort in New Jersey called “ready, set, relax” (www.readysetrelex.org). An entire community literally took a day off from all distractions and activities and found the results very empowering. A decade later, this event is still going strong in New Jersey and trickling across the country in scattered areas. I suspect people’s skepticism is what has prevented it from taking hold in a major way nationwide. I recall a conversation I had in 2003-2004 with my daughter’s elementary school Principal suggesting we try this as an event and she shot it down. “It would never work”, she told me. “People are too busy.” I told her that was the point – to give them a break from busy. Almost a decade later, busy is now on over drive and I can’t help wonder what would have happened if she just took the time from her busy day to realize the opportunity she actually had the power to do something about to help her school, and then community, get more healthy.

It’s never too late for a night out from activities and chaos. When we were kids we needed down time and family time and thirty plus years later our kids do too. Society isn’t robbing our kids of their childhoods, we are. We’re the ones signing them up for things. So, let’s take back the reigns. Let’s help them regain some sanity in their lives and have a childhood – at least once in a while. Ready? I am…and I have a feeling I know a few kids in my home and perhaps yours who are ready, too.

(Originally posted in 2009; Updated in 2011)