“I hate Thursdays,” Bubbe barked. “I wake up early for band, go to school, spend two more hours in religious school, come home, and do homework. I need a break.”
“You’re right,” I sighed. “But education is not an option. Band is a commitment and you need to finish what you started. Please put your clarinet away, get one homework sheet done, and pack a snack for Hebrew school. We’re leaving in twenty minutes.”
Later that evening, I scrolled through registration emails for the upcoming season’s optional extracurricular activities:
Baseball: League 1 and/or League 2. Travel team.
Tennis, soccer, swim, lacrosse
Drama, drawing, Junior Chef…
and thought about the last line of my response to Vicki Abeles’s New York Times’ Sunday Review piece, “Is School Making our Children Ill?”
Let’s resolve to take a step back and give children back their childhood.
In my Letter to the Editor, I complimented the Irvington High School community in Fremont, California for taking steps to rescue students from their high-stakes childhoods by limiting homework requirements and encouraged parents of young learners like me and those of my students to be brave, take ownership and embrace such efforts by curtailing after-school and evening enrichment in an effort to preserve the social, emotional and physical health of our children.
I often fantasize about what might happen if children, from toddlers to teenagers who live in a community laden with a multitude of well intended non-school related activities gave them up.
Would the children be lost; bored and confused by the lack of structure? At first, until they learned how to organize and occupy themselves.
Would they stare at screens instead of reaching out to each other? Probably, until an observant grown up or precocious peer stepped in.
Would their resumes suffer, leaving them unable to prosper in a society fixated on success, competition and career? On the contrary; extra time and space would give them a chance to practice the socialization, thinking, and problem solving skills needed to thrive later in life.
After the initial shock wore off, I think the children would forget how busy their lives once were.
I imagine they would pack the playgrounds and
pick up the sport they previously raced off to play with whoever was nearby. Put on shows,
hang from trees,
visit with friends,
relax with family,
get more sleep,
and take that necessary break.
And I’m pretty sure the adults in their lives would come to welcome the change.
Perhaps if these young people had scaled back schedules, their schools would not have to revamp homework policies like in Fremont, delay start times to accommodate the sleep deprived like in Seattle, and implement mindfulness training to battle the growing epidemic of childhood anxiety and depression as did New York City.
While the educational system has a responsibility to promote childhood wellness, we parents and guardians do as well. Children schlepping from class to practice to workshops and back again offsets the effort made by teachers and administrators and puts additional stress on kids and families.
Still, my under-scheduled fantasy is a daunting reality for this worried mom.
What if my boys are the only ones who opt out? They’ll feel excluded and alone.
What if they lose a competitive edge? How can they impress college admissions let alone make any high school team?
Doesn’t formal exposure to the arts, technology, and team play breed well roundedness?
It’s healthy to take risks; sample new and different things.
Besides, Bubbe and Skootch seem happy when they are busily in the mix.
But their childhood is not mine, nor is it about my parental goals, expectations, angst or insecurities.
With that, I marked the registration emails as unread and approached Bubbe.
“Here’s the deal,” I explained. “You know school and band are a given. Think about the three other activities you participated in this time last year. Rank them. Keep the top two.”
“I definitely want my tennis lesson,” he said. “And I’d like to try baseball again. So I guess I’ll stop CrossFit for now.”
I cringed. Bubbe nixed the one extra I believe physically and mentally benefited him most and chose a sport that requires a greater weekly commitment. “Okay,” I said. “Sounds like a plan.”
Gaining a free afternoon may not reflect the childhoods of yesteryear, but it’s a start.
Let’s bring back rest, play, and old-fashioned fun. This season resolve to take away one.
Unfortunately, even Kindergartens are doing away with unstructured play in favor of more literacy. Play is not only “fun” – it is children’s work. How else can they learn problem solving, taking turns, creativity and imagination if they must always conform to the rules of team sports? Sports and regulated activities have their place. But so does playing with no goal in mind other than just having fun.
Amen to that!!! Thank you for commenting 🙂
It’s interesting. My kid won’t let me put her in more stuff. She takes flute and goes to after-school activities at her school twice a week (so I can work or take an exercise class). Granted she is 6, but some of her peers are already in multiple, demanding activities. I know of one classmate who does swimming and ballet, a friend who does Irish dance, piano and French, etc. etc. If our weekends are over scheduled with social activities, my child complains. She is very clear she likes a lot of down time, family time, and time for self directed activity (drawing, kitchen science, building things, going to the park). It has made me think hard about why I encourage her to take on activities. Sometimes it comes from my feeling of missing out on all the cool possibilities before her–there was so much less opportunity for out-of-school activity in my own childhood. Sometimes I need to put her in an activity so I can get child care (like on school breaks, when she wishes she could just stay home). It also reminds me that my child takes after my introverted husband and I need to respect that.
Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. My older son is not much of a risk taker, so when he was younger I would sign him up for a couple of activities I thought would be good for him. Now that he’s older, there aren’t enough hours in the day to cram it all in. Something had to give. He also tells me what he can handle and makes it very clear he needs downtime and rest. I can relate and also want to respect his wishes.
I applaud you, Jennifer! May many more families take your lead. Having been through this already, I can only say no one will be missing out on anything and you’ll all be less hurried for it (I don’t like the word ‘stressed’. It implies there’s not much we can do about it. ‘Hurried’ is easier to ‘fix’. Just ‘slow down’.) My two cents – a dollar, with inflation. 🙂
I think you should stand on a very tall “been there done that” soap box and let parents with young children especially know that Junior Chef or no Junior Chef, everything will be fine. Like I said, children (and adults) need to embrace good ole-fashioned play and its long term benefits. Thank you for always commenting!
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