The other day a blogging-friend (Judy, over at Connecting Dots…to God) posed a question which is plaguing a whole generation of parents. The dilemma? Kid-calendars!
Many kids today have such busy schedules that a person might be forgiven for mistaking a glimpse of their calendars for schedules of heads of state. Even parents who remember their own happy and well-adjusted childhoods full of play have begun to worry that they’re doing their kids a disservice if they don’t keep up with the frantic pace of the “high-mileage mom” next door.
Terms like “hyper-parenting” and “helicopter parenting” are flying around, and emotions and arguments are running hot on both sides of the issue. Some of the statistics on the issue are pretty cut-and-dried, but the interpretation and application of those statistics are anything but. It seems that wherever they stand in their own parenting choices, parents feel “under attack” and defensive–so we get attacks flying both directions.
Some parents don’t have the luxury of choice, because kid-activities are expensive! Our son’s high school charges $180 up-front for participation in each school sport, and then there’s the required “Spirit Pack” (another $40 for team-logo sweatshirts, socks, shorts, and jerseys), and then there are the mandatory equipment purchases (not only the pricey athletic shoes, but pads, helmets, and uniform pieces), and on top of that there’s required fund-raising to pay for buses and coaches and other team expenses… I’d assumed initially that there might be a waiver or scholarship or some sort of assistance for families who don’t have that kind of money, but nope–if you can’t pay, you don’t play.
I’m pleased at least that his Varsity coach expects the boys to do their own fund-raising; the J.V. coach last year blithely suggested that the easiest approach is for parents just to write a check for the required per-player fund-raising amount of several hundred dollars. That rubbed me the wrong way on several levels. For one thing, I was grounded in the “ethic” early on that a Girl Scout sold her own cookies–it wasn’t acceptable to send the sign-up sheet to work with your parents. (To this day, I’ll buy a box if a girl approaches me–even if my freezer is already stuffed with Girl Scout cookies–but when I get tackled by a mom outside the grocery store? No way.) So I objected to the coach’s approach from that standpoint–and also from the viewpoint that we were looking at welching on our power bill just to scrape together the other required funds… (The power company can’t turn off the heat during winter months in a household with children, so we knew we’d have until March to deal with that.)
But I digress–the point I intended to make is that even school-related activities are expensive these days, and the extra soccer, hockey, Little League, music lessons, ballet lessons, karate lessons, club teams, and other structured activities are even more costly. Especially in a household with multiple children, a family needs to have some solid finances in place even for school sports, let alone cramming a kid’s schedule with “extras.”
I’m sure for some families this is a source of anxiety; watching all the neighbors’ minivans go tearing around town to catch the round-robin of games, matches, recitals, concerts, displays, and competitions, a parent might begin to fret about whether their kids are missing out on necessary experiences due to income level. There are plenty of other families, though, who could afford all the activities but choose not to. And some of these parents, too, find themselves fretting that they’re being “bad parents” (or even “lazy” parents) because they aren’t devoting their days to driving their kids hither and yon. There’s certainly plenty of pressure on this score, even when it’s only in the form of overheard mom-talk at the kids’ school or daycare…
I was a stay-home mom for five years, so the kids didn’t need daycare during those preschool years. I did, however, enroll Christian in the YMCA preschool for a few hours a week to make sure he got some social-time, since no one else in our social circle had kids yet. I was shocked to overhear the mom-conversations going on around the pick-up area when it came time for kindergarten registrations. Boise schools have “open enrollment,” meaning that each child is assigned by default to the school nearest them, but parents can request to have their kids moved to a different school.
All of us there at the Y would be assigned toTaft Elementary by default, but every other mother there had requested a move. Taft happens to be situated near a pocket of refugee-housing, so (although Boise is, overall, a thoroughly “white-bread” community) Taft has a much more diverse student population. Many of the kids are from Africa. Many of them are Black. Many of them are Muslim. ”Have you SEEN the kids who go to that school?” one mother asked another, with a shudder of distaste. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Oh yes–I can just imagine what damage would be done to our kids if they should experience other languages, cultures, or colors! We’d better protect them from boys named Muhammed and girls in head scarves… (On the contrary–Christian now acts as a designated “buddy” for new arrivals who don’t speak English…)
As it happens, Taft Elementary (despite severe poverty and linguistic challenges experienced by its student population) wins awards every year for its creative and successful approach to educating kids. I had absolutely no reason to fight for a spot on another Kindergarten waiting-list, but that experience brought home to me how seriously parents take their kids’ enrollments and activities–even at the age of five!
That’s the same sort of pressured thinking that goes into activity-scheduling for a lot of families. A lot of parents seem focused on building their kids’ “resumés” even before the kids can spell their own names. Dr. William Doherty, who has written a book on the subject of “over-scheduled” kids, attributes this drive to several factors in American life.
He cites the increase in working parents (and the corresponding increase in guilty feelings about not spending enough time or “doing enough” for their kids), a pervasive fear of a child being left out or left behind by other kids accelerating and excelling in their accomplishments, peer pressure from other parents, and an overactive sense of alarm in reaction to the cultural message that being busy is a superior state compared to “idleness.” He had this to say about what he sees as the culture of over-scheduling kids:
“The adult world of hyper-competition and marketplace values has invaded the family. Parents still love their children and try to do what is best for them, but we’re missing our children in a culture that defines a good parent as an opportunity-provider in a competitive world. Parenting becomes like product development, with insecure parents never knowing when they’ve done enough and when their children are falling behind. Keeping our children busy at least means they are in the game.”
At the same time, there are plenty of “experts” who come down on the other side of the argument as well. With all the conflicting reporting and pressure (real or perceived) from parenting-peers, many parents are anxious about whether they’re providing sufficient opportunities for their kids–and (paradoxically) worried at the same time that they’re over-working their kids.
Studies conducted in the last decade (including reports by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the Council of Economic Advisers to the President, and the YMCA) do show marked changes in practices and habits on the American “family front.” Pundits on both sides of the issue debate the meaning of these statistics, but they don’t dispute the stats themselves:
- A pronounced decrease in free time for both preschool and school-aged children, and a sharp decline in “unstructured” outdoor activities.
- A marked decrease in family meal-time, and the number of family dinners per week.
- A noticeable decrease in the nutritional value of kids’ meals, which may be tied to the corresponding drop in family dinners and the common practice of resorting to fast food and meals-on-the-go.
- A decided decrease in family vacation time.
- A clear decrease in religious participation among families with school-aged children.
- A striking decrease in children’s time with their parents–particularly if you don’t count “parent spectatorship” as time-spent-together.
- A considerable increase (more than doubled in a decade!) of children’s participation in organized sports.
- A clear increase in passive spectating, which includes watching siblings’ sports and activities.
The statistics aren’t in dispute, but their interpretations–as well as their cause-and-effect relationships–are still being debated. For example, the decrease in family vacation time may be due to economic factors rather than kids’ schedules. And other factors which I didn’t even list here (like the increase in anti-depressant medications being prescribed to kids) haven’t been definitively linked to over-scheduling, although many people suggest a connection. So when we really come down to it, there’s no cut-and-dried answer to this issue.
However… I remember a solid piece of parenting-advice my mother gave me when I first embarked on the Mommy-gig, fortified with every parenting-book I could get my hands on. When it came right down to it, though, she told me for pete’s sake to “put down the book and pick up the baby!” None of the “experts” can give us a definitive answer about how we should schedule our kids’ time–but if we look to our individual kids, we can start to form some answers.
And the answer won’t be the same for every kid! Some kids thrive on scheduled and structured activity, while other kids (maybe even in the same family) prefer free, unstructured time to play or read or invent their own entertainments.
Our two youngest are in a position to compare and decide precisely what they prefer, due to the very different lifestyles between their dad’s house and ours. At their dad’s house they have scheduled sports and activities every single day of the week, and if they’re not engaged in their own activities, they’re sitting on the sidelines or benches watching each other’s. On weeknights they eat on the go, they don’t get home to start homework until late, and even the eight-year-old doesn’t go to bed until after ten. (She has always liked her sleep, so even she isn’t happy with that arrangement.)
In contrast (as you’ve probably already guessed from my photo line-up of things-for-families-to-do), ours is not a structured-schedule household of crammed-in structured activities. Part of the issue is financial–our income for this year will probably be about fifteen thousand, while their dad’s household income is into six figures. But even aside from the sign-up fees, we prefer to spend our time with our kids rather than constantly driving-and-spectating for them. And the kids themselves are quite clear about the fact that they prefer it too. Especially Elena Grace–she would happily drop all of her activities if she were allowed, and the first thing she said to me last Saturday morning (with a blissful grin) was, “I could read ALL DAY if I wanted to!” Christian does enjoy his soccer (which only runs for eight weeks of the year) and is generally in favor of his karate class, but other activities (like cello lessons–he’s the tone-deaf one) only add stress. (And a heavy item to carry back and forth to school!)
I was offered my previous summer position at the State Park by our house, but when I put it to a family vote, the decision was unanimous: they’d rather have ME for the summer than have more MONEY in the household.
When we made the family T-shirts for our backyard badminton tournaments, the fronts all said “Vega-Tyler Team,” because the two youngest kids have their dad’s last name. But last week when we were playing pirate and singing the “Pirate’s Life for Me,” Christian unexpectedly (and off-key, of course) substituted:”Yo ho, yo ho, a Tyler Life for Me!” We can’t buy them toys, we can’t take them to Disneyland, and we don’t even have television channels–but they prefer the Tyler way of life.
And for the record, so do WE. The mom sitting next to Keoni at Christian’s soccer game last week was going on about all the different soccer games she had to get to that day, all at different locations. She wore her complaint like a badge of honor–and if her kids all want to be playing, then it is a sacrifice on her part to put that much mileage on herself… But we’re extremely grateful that’s not our life. We’re happy operating on “Island Time” and seeking our own adventures.