There are any number of ways to fill a child’s schedule, from leaving open blocks of freedom to cramming it full like a dance card. It falls all over the parenting spectrum: obligation, burden, guilt, bonding, joy, nostalgia, the teaching of skills and the learning of lessons. It’s like a Pixar movie in a pinny. We find the time and the funds that said schedule dictates, then force the world to see all the fun that we are having — late nights of homework and fast food dinners seldom make the cut of Facebook fodder.
At what point does it all become too much and we create overscheduled children? A different activity each night of the week and twice on Wednesdays? When the waking hours cut away too much sleep? When you drop your kid off at karate in her soccer uniform? Or when family time is only spent in commutes and early morning hallways?
There is nothing wrong with extracurricular activities, in fact, just the opposite — the upside is packed with all the keywords of a happy, healthy childhood — but, spoiler alert: We don’t have to do it all.
Downtime has its moments, and it is perfectly acceptable to pace ourselves and let the kids have some elbow room. Stretching is important, too, and the sidelines are the perfect place for a picnic.
When I was a kid, my options were somewhat limited. Granted, I grew up in a rural farming community, so many extracurricular activities had an immediate, practical value. For the most part it was 4-H and yard work. Our schedule was “be home by dark.” However, we had baseball in the summer, hot as it was, and I seem to recall playing one down in one game of flag football. There were a few weeks of camp, which, in hindsight, may have been more of a glorified daycare, and the local pool only charged a quarter for a chance to become a belly-flop legend, living in infamy long after the sting had gone. But we didn’t have fencing, glassblowing, parkour or coding classes to compete for our wandering attention. We didn’t even have soccer. We certainly didn’t have cable.
Now, my boys have access to all of the above, not to mention water polo, lacrosse, art, music, science camps, writing retreats and countless others. The overwhelming bounty of it is something akin to intoxicating for many parents, insistent as we are on providing all the opportunities to all the things. We want our kids to have every chance in the world.
Good. Letting kids experience new things expands their horizons and puts them on the road to being well-rounded, empathetic people. They may find their passion or they may find that they haven’t found it yet — both are important. The hard part is pacing ourselves.
Through trial and error, we have decided (family meeting!) that our kids benefit from concentrating on one or two pursuits at a time, sandwiched on the schedule as they are between school, homework and family, not to mention sleep and whatever passes for a social life.
We have tried it both ways: a calendar covered in circles and itineraries, and days where the night fades slowly into a good book and a sinking pillow. The latter has proved the better option for our boys. Rather than spread themselves thin over countless pursuits they give their full attention to one extracurricular activity per quarter. Then they have the option of doing it again or moving on to something else. Sometimes the season makes the decision for them. We ebb with the dog days and flow with the fun. The upside is everywhere.
The sidelines are full of pride and loneliness. We are there pacing, cheering and sitting on chairs an inch off the ground. Games are being played and our kids are on the field, even when it’s all a metaphor — perhaps then even more so.
We are on the sidelines, and we are cheering loudly.