Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Speed of My Illusions

When my daughter was younger, she was scheduled to take part in a dance recital. That is probably a bit of an overstatement since "dance" to her at that age mostly meant shimmying and shuffling a little while smiling like Shirley Temple. Event title aside, I was rushing from my workplace to pick her up at her childcare so we could be at the second full dress rehearsal on time. I had discovered at the first rehearsal that the recital was as much an event for the mothers as the children. The veteran moms were lined up backstage with an arsenal of beauty supply products for use on their young daughters. There was a very specific list of how they should look, including their hairstyles and even their eye make-up. While I was disturbed vaguely by the prospect of layering purple eye shadow on my 5-year old, I was dutifully going through the list at each red-light along the way. Somewhere between me mercilessly tightening her hair into a prim bun and lining her lips, she peered up at me and said quietly "Mommy, you are going too fast."

"Psssssssttttt" (that is the sound that my illusions make when they fizzle out like a popped balloon). She wasn't talking about my driving, folks. And she was right.

Activities can enrich children’s lives and expose them to many opportunities for future success. But too many activities can create stress and exhaustion, spreading children too thin. According to a study from the University of Michigan, children as young as 3 have notably less down time than children of the same age twenty years ago.

“Down time” is time when there are no set activities; time is unstructured and reasonably free. Children who don’t have much free time probably don’t have enough time simply to be children. Family time also gets squeezed out as more activities are added to an already full calendar. Many experts believe that family time is the glue that holds family members together.

How can parents make sure their young children are not overscheduled and protect some family time?

· Include free time. The Work and Family Institute recommends that parents make sure their child has down time every day. Children need this to relax. They also need to learn how to play by them-selves so that they don’t always count on others to entertain them.

· Limit the number of organized activities to two or so per week. This allows the child to focus and prevents exhaustion. It also makes room for family time and down time.

· Make sure activities are fitted to the child’s age. For example, 3-year-old Jenna may love dancing but not be ready for beginning ballet. Little Bobby may like kicking the ball around but he does not need to experience the competition of serious team sports for quite some time.

· Choose activities of interest to the child. Sometimes, adults can have their own reasons for wanting their child to be involved in some activity. For example, Jim always wanted to play football so he signed 4-year-old Taylor up for “Preschool Pigskins” although the little boy could care less. Choose and build on what your child likes.

· Find some activities that you can do together. Research shows that children are better off in many ways when their parents do things with them. Together, take a walk or ride bikes, read a book or bake cookies, plant flowers. If your child likes art, spend time drawing pictures together or find a parent-child art class where you can share in your child’s interest. Children who like dance and music might love a parent-child creative movement group or listening to music and creating funny moves while you do chores together.

In the long run, children’s best interests are not served by an overly busy schedule that overshadows family and down time.

In his book The Intentional Family, William Dougherty argues that parent leadership can keep families connected and strong. He writes, “An intentional family rows and steers its own boat rather than being moved only by the winds and current.” With this in mind, I have slowed down in the last few years. It benefits my daughter and it benefits me.