Many new studies being published in the fields of child psychology and child development address the question of how our busy culture impacts children’s development and learning. Are our children becoming less creative due to extended hours in the mini-van? Do our children know how to entertain themselves without adults or technology? Why is childhood depression increasing in the middle and upper classes? Many scientists are pointing at our busy culture as a source of well-intended harm for our children and our families.
The studies related to this topic have been stirring in my mind recently as our family has scrambled to find our “school rhythm” this week after arriving home from a lovely vacation over Labor Day Weekend. Suddenly, I find myself rushing my children constantly. Why can’t they brush their teeth faster? Why does breakfast seem to last twice as long as it did in the summertime? I tried dropping my four-year old off in the wrong preschool class this morning! Does anyone else feel frazzled, frantic, annoyed and busy? Perhaps it is just me, but scientists would tell me I am not alone.
Instead of treading into nostalgic waters about red tricycles and childhoods of the past, I will assume that you know what I am referring to…preschool in the morning, soccer at noon, art class following, drop off a dinner for a family with a new baby- stay too long, get home and realize that your family has nothing to eat, order pizza and then go to bed exhausted.
What drives our busy schedule? Do we plan activities for our children or for ourselves? Most parents immediately answer “for the children”, but I challenge parents to think again, without guilt. What truly leads us to sign our children up for one more class or activity? Is it a “keeping up with the Jones’s” effect? Is a four-hour stretch with the kids, and nothing to do, just unbearable to think about? Do your kids appear bored and whiney at home? Are you afraid your kids will fall behind their peers if you don’t start them in sports at an early age? Do you need adult conversation?
The Intelligent Nest is a judgement-free zone. I confess I have put my kids in an activity for most of the reasons listed above at some point. I tell you that, without shame, because research backs the idea that the parental experience significantly matters to your child’s well-beign and development. A bored, socially-starved, annoyed and concerned parent is not as able to meet their child’s needs as balanced parent that takes into account their needs along with their children’s. So, if you sign your children up for classes, just for the sake of filling up the afternoon and getting out of the house, there is no reason to be ashamed. But perhaps there is a another way to meet everyone’s needs without spending unnecessary sums on money on programs and throwing everyone into a frazzled mini-van for the day, everyday. Not to mention, research does significantly point towards well-intended busyness as a modern ill in parenting. Simply put, declutter the family schedule and everybody wins.
Here are a couple of suggestions for slowing down family life and finding peace and enjoyment in spending the day with young children:
1) Join a playgroup. Playgroup is the best activity I can conceive of for a young child and their parent. Each week, the playgroup changes venues or meets at a different home. The parent and child get a chance to interact with peers, new situations, new foods and toys. Best yet, playgroup is free! Put the $200 class enrollment fee your saving from not enrolling in “Music for Tots” into your child’s college savings account instead. Playgroup is different from another formal class or activity, because there is very little structure. You can arrive and leave as needed. No rush to make it in time and the children can direct their own activities while there. Children learn and process information best when given unstructured playtime each day.
2) Limit classes/activities. There is no set number of classes/activities for a specific child at a specific age. Assess your child’s temperament, family’s schedule, yours and your child’s needs, etc… to come up with the right number. But typically, the fewer the classes the better. Four-year old children do not need to go to preschool (structured learning) and have multiple sports and activities (more structured learning) in the afternoon. For most four-year olds, preschool is enough. They receive a balanced morning full of activities, exercise and plenty of group/collaborative learning (if you are concerned about “team building”). Most children need a chance to process their morning in the afternoon and benefit significantly from a independent quiet-time or free-play. Aim to have up to one structured activity per day (preschool is considered a structured activity) for children zero to five. You may say, “My daughter loves dance!”. I am guessing your child also loves the park. A young child will gain more from a trip to the park, than a dance lesson. And again, the park does not require you to come and go at certain times and places no limits on the child’s learning. Young children have a long life ahead of them, which they can fill with extra-curricular activities. Researchers do not suggest never doing dance, soccer or french lessons, just wait until they are a little older. Children change learning styles around the ages of 5 to 7 years old. Beginning extra curriculars in the older ages is more meaningful than in the younger years.
3) Make a list of all the play areas in your community that you can visit for free or for reasonable cost for “open play”. Next time you are itching to get out of the house, text a friend to meet you at one of the play spaces on your list. List indoor and outdoor locations so that you have suggestions that are weather friendly. You’d be surprised by how many options you can come up with. Your young child will gain just as much from free-play at Chick-fil-A’s indoor play-zone as they will from taking a soccer class. Once again, you can arrive and leave when desired and your child directs the play and learning in these venues.
4) Make playdates with friends. If you know that Tuesday afternoons are particularly challenging for your family (i.e. you feel like you want to pull your hair out), then plan ahead and find another family to invite over or meet up with every Tuesday afternoon. You can sit and have a nice conversation with your friend and your children can enjoy and learn from other children’s company.
5) Plan family field trips. Plan fun activities and outings for your family that have a vacation vibe. Meaning, treat the day like a day off. Opt to buy lunch instead of pack, put your smart phone away, opt to buy the balloon from the stand, put on a care-free attitude and soak up the day with just you and your kids. Enjoy and relish them! I tried this over the summer on Fridays, because I knew by Friday I would feel VERY ready for the weekend (we had a class and camp free summer). We would go into the city and just enjoy a day together. Friday’s were the best day of the week this summer. Children are so wonderful and delightful, but it can be hard to enjoy them when we are wrapped up in life and its distractions. Field trips tend to be more expensive than park outings, but if you are replacing art camp with field trip day, you will likely be saving money by opting for the family field trip instead.
Young children really are not built for our hectic adult schedules. They thrive with open-ended play and plenty of time to experiment and learn. They don’t think of life in terms of to-do’s and tasks. They wake up ready to embrace the day, without a plan or a care in the world. As a declared Type-A Personality, I have much to learn from my children. It is hard some days to stop “doing” and start enjoying life before it and my kids pass me by.
Do you have ideas for how to slow down our busy lives? Please do share!!