Over Being Over-Scheduled


Last Sunday, my son came to me as we were getting ready for church, and he was crying. "Mommy," he said with tears on his cheeks, "why can't I just have a day off?"

And boom! There it was, the feeling that I have failed in some major/minor way as a parent. He couldn't have been more clear that he is over-scheduled than if he'd hit me over the head with a board.

For years I have advocated to give kids as much unstructured time as possible. I feel strongly about this--and the evidence supports it! I've tried to limit activities to 2-3 per week, per child (the reality has been 3-4, but it's a goal). They get to choose one (or two), I get to choose one (or two), and the third (or fourth) is negotiable. This is supposed to give us more time to gather as a family, for them to have down time that is unstructured, and in the long term (I hope) it will provide them with the groundwork they need to become the happy and independent adults I wish them to grow into.

So HOW did it happen that we ended up on a Little League baseball team that meets four--yes, FOUR--times each week?! Especially when he also has gym, OT, and chess (and yes, Navigator scouts but only once a month!). How did I let us get here?

Now, friends and family have heard me complaining about this extensively, pretty much since the reality of this new schedule kicked in. There is the overwhelm factor for me--how can I get my son to games and practices that often and still get my daughter where she needs to go? (And let's not even consider the things I need to be doing.) As a family we now have maybe--MAYBE--one night a week where we don't have to be somewhere and do something.

And the overwhelm factor for my son is clear. A seven-year-old should not be in tears, begging for a day off. The last time I saw that was an old boyfriend who worked seven days a week at two jobs and went to college full time...and I didn't think it was that healthy back then! For me to see that in my son broke my heart open in all sorts of ways.

Needless to say, I gave him the day off that Sunday. When Monday's practice came, he wanted to quit. Then I was in a real conundrum--do I let him quit (because clearly the schedule is developmentally inappropriate), or do I encourage him to finish what he started and fulfill his commitment to the team?

Yeah. I had a hard time with that one. In the end, I told him what I was thinking, and the two of us tried to find some middle ground. He talked to his coach about his feelings, and we agreed to cut out one practice per week. We'll see how it goes, and I certainly know we won't be signing up for this again.

But here's my big question: How did we, as a culture, get here? How did we turn something that should be fun and playful into such a burden? This little kid went from loving baseball and T-ball to talking about quitting--and I know he's not the only one. I also know that baseball is not the only culprit here.

Especially here in Silicon Valley, there is an unhealthy trend to push our kids harder, faster, and younger. Parents are being told we should worry when our kids can't read in Kindergarten (we shouldn't, by the way). Which preschool you "get into" determines which "track" your child will be on for college (Ivy all the way!). Swim classes for 3-year-olds have Olympic goals. Cross country practices for freshmen are six nights a week. And we have a serious, life-threatening mental health issue in our area that directly affects our children. As a parent--as a member of this community--that terrifies me.

I, and every other parent I have met here, love our children. We would do anything for them. We read, we research, we interview, and we try to do the best in all situations. But I'm having conflicting values at this juncture--I want my children to have the extra-curricular activities they want, AND I want them to have enough unstructured time for them to grow and develop in healthy ways. How can I do both of those things in this environment?

A dear friend said this phrase to me today: It's not your fault, but it is your responsibility. I've been pondering that in many ways. It's true that it's not my fault that the current culture is what it is. But it IS my responsibility to make what changes I can to improve things for the health of our children. For me, that means writing to the local Little League association and asking them to make some changes to their practice policy for the younger kids. I will also find like-minded parents to sign it with me, showing that there is large portion of the community who wants this change. I'll look for alternatives for my son next year if those changes aren't made (and maybe create options if there aren't any). I'll continue to talk about the importance of unstructured play time for our younger kids, educate other parents about the benefits, and get back on track to limit activities.

But the most important thing I can do, I think, is take a breath. Take a lot of breaths. Because if I let myself get caught up in this race to nowhere, my kids are coming right along with me. But if I take the time to simply breathe, and be, and enjoy my life moment to moment...that is what I will teach my children. And that is exactly what I want them to learn.

So...what will you do? The culture is certainly not your fault, but you have the opportunity to make what changes you can. What are your ideas? What changes do you want to see? What do you want to model, and what, exactly, do you want your children to learn?

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