Kristen Havey, Contributing writer
My daughter is nine years old, and it seems like all her peers are busy juggling after-school activities like a teen would a part-time job. I hear my co-workers on the phones with their spouses trying to determine who’s going to take the kids to their activities. I struggle to coordinate schedules with other moms as we try to plan for playdates. Monday’s the kids have soccer, Tuesday it’s dance, Wednesdays are for piano, and Thursdays are for extra math practice. Throw in the hockey tournament all weekend and it’s amazing that anyone can still find the time to breathe.
A lot of parents feel that they’re doing their children a disservice if they’re not exposing them to a number of activities at a young age. “How will they know what they’re like if I don’t have them try?” they’ll say. “We come from a family of basketball players so our child will definitely play travel and town ball.” But this has always made me uncomfortable. I’m all for extracurricular participation if the child is on board, but I really feel that some misguided societal and parental expectations – the belief that being busy in this way is good for a child and more activities equals more benefit – are driving many of these choices for families today.
There are, of course, a lot of valuable lessons that a child can learn through involvement in sports, the arts, or any number of other activities. However, I think that the right amount of involvement for a child is something that has to be individually determined. How much is beneficial? How much is too much? Children have different strengths, varying levels of comfort and anxiety, and I think it’s important to listen to them when making these decisions.
While attending my daughter’s third-grade open house, many of the parents were taken aback when the teacher asked us to limit our children’s extracurricular activities during the school week. This was the first time that someone from our school had ever said these words to parents. I thought that it was an important request, and I was so relieved to hear a teacher stand up for something that I have always believed – that kids need balance. They need time to play and relax. Their lives should not be constantly in motion. I looked around the room when she said this, wondering how her words were being received by the other parents. Would they listen? Did they think she was out of line? Did anyone else feel as relieved as I did?
Children work so hard academically and socially during the school day. So while their lives outside of school should be sprinkled with extracurricular activities, I really believe that they shouldn’t be drowning in them. These activities, especially at the lower levels, should be ones that they enjoy. As they grow older, their skill levels will certainly advance – and pressures to succeed or perform well may build too – but kids are never going to be passionate about an activity if they don’t find it fun! So I think as parents we should make sure our children feel positive about their activities of choice.
At one time, my daughter was doing dance, gymnastics, running, and playing tee-ball. But soon she was exhausted and often complained of not wanting to attend her extracurriculars. We couldn’t even easily determine which activities she actually enjoyed because she seemingly hated all of them. Really, she was just overwhelmed.
And when we stopped to consider how she was spending her time, we realized that she just didn’t have much downtime. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that free play is crucial in the development of a healthy child, and it reaps benefits like conflict resolution and decision-making skills. Many structured activities just don’t allow for the same freedom and creativity that unstructured time does, and I found that I had been undervaluing the importance of unstructured time for my own daughter. It turned out that she only disliked all of those extracurriculars because what she really wanted was time to read with me, or play dolls in her room, or just relax at home.
All families need to navigate this in a way that’s best for them, but what was our solution? We agreed that she should limit herself to one exercise-based activity per season. And, if she wanted to, she could also choose a hands-on activity, like pottery class. But that would be our limit. My daughter, loveable and positive, but sometimes anxious, certainly benefits from involvement in extracurricular activities, but finding some sort of balance was key for us.
It’s important to remember that it’s not a competition. You are not more or less amazing because of the number of activities that your child is involved in. They will not be more or less successful as adults based on the activities they choose at age eight. Sports and other extracurricular activities undoubtedly teach important lessons: teamwork, creativity, compassion, drive. But it’s our job as parents to educate the whole child. So be your child’s number one cheerleader. Be their best coach. Never lose sight of what is important, and always lend an ear to your child’s needs. Our goal as parents is to raise caring, responsible children. How exactly our kids get there – and the extracurriculars they participate in along the way – is trivial.
About the author
Kristen Havey has been a special education teacher for the past decade and her daughter’s biggest fan for just as long. Kristen runs mountains, trails, and roads in her spare time. She also loves hiking and the ocean. She is a master of multitasking and always hungry for her next adventure.