I am a good mom. I have no doubt about this. The thing is, being a good mom makes for all kinds of uncertainties and for regularly doubting my good-momminess. Right now I am struggling with my kids’ activities. Last year, my oldest daughter flat out rejected every activity in which we had previously enrolled her. She hated dance, was bored at gymnastics, indifferent to piano. Soccer and art class were only tolerated. So, my husband and I backed off and did not enroll her in any extracurricular activities. My middle daughter on the other hand wanted to do it all. She loved everything and had a list of ten other activities that she wanted to try. As dutiful parents, we enrolled her in the classes she asked for and then we drove her all over the city. Finally, we waited and waited while she danced, played soccer, swam and bounded through gym class. We rarely had a family dinner, homework was being skipped and bedtime was pushed later and later every evening.
As with so many things in life, there are multiple very distinct parenting camps when it comes to children’s activities. There are the more-is-better people, the 10,000-hours-before-they-are -twelve people and then there are the back-off-and-let-them-be-kids people. Being a good mom means that I have spent too much time thinking about this. It does not mean that I have an answer.
First there are the 10,000-hour parents. The whole idea, coined by Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers, is that to become an expert in anything a person needs 10,000 hours of practice. So my child, whose potential is untapped at this point, must get busy and start practicing one thing now because 10,000 hours is a lot! One friend pointed out that really there was no point in doing anything if you didn’t want to be an expert at it. You might guess that this particular friend is a bit of an overachiever himself. He is determined that his children will not only have a professional career but will also be proficient (read: professional) musicians and will also make a run at some Olympic sport. This sounds crazy to me but it has worked for him and he has two grown children who have done just those things. Other friends have their six year old in eight hours of competitive gymnastics a week and others still are pushing their 8 year old children toward the NHL in 5 nights a week of hockey games and practices. These parents tell me that their children want to do this. The kids love gymnastics, hockey, piano so much that they want to do it all the time. Yet, I wonder, is this the best thing for a child? Not only that but is it the best thing for a family? I’m not sure that forgoing a sit-down dinner for sandwiches in the car every week night is worth the reward here. And what is the reward? Maybe in 10 years some of these kids will be superstars but most of them won’t be. One mother told me how important it was for her daughter to learn goal setting and hard work. I can’t argue with this. She’s right. I just wonder if there is a gentler way to do it.
I probably lean mostly to the let-them-be-kids camp. A Facebook posting for the book Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne recently caught my attention. I clicked through the links and started reading. Within moments I had a very emotional reaction. I actually wept. Although, that may be related to my extreme sleep deprivation (will my baby ever sleep the night through?!) Regardless, my heart lies in this type of parenting even if my head won’t always let me follow. The idea is that we over-burden children with activities, toys and screentime thereby chipping away at their confidence and wholeness. My own children can fill an entire day with play and imagination if I just let them be. I know only a few parents who have embraced this philosophy. They have very happy kids who don’t seem to be missing the activities.
Most of the parents I encounter seem to believe more-is-better in the area of children’s activities. Their kids swim, dance, play piano, ringette and soccer and are registered in day camps on every long weekend. They are busy and truly, most of these kids seem pretty happy. When you talk to parents the conversation always turns to activities. It is like asking the child version of ‘what do you do for a living?’ Inevitably, parents list all of the activities, next the quality of the programs is discussed and if there is still time you might get around to how quickly the child has progressed through the levels. The problem is that I drank the kool-aid. I want to tell all of the other parents how great my kids are. I want them to know that my daughters are accomplished and varied in their interests. But that’s just it; this conversation has very little to do with my kids and what they love and who they are. It’s more of a pissing match than anything else.
This year when it came time to register for activities I had one goal: balance. The girls each had to pick one activity, just one. This works for us. Most nights we have slow dinners and the kids read and we have time to be a family. Then one night a week we go back to the craziness of eating in the car so we can get to the pool on time. One night doesn’t seem so bad and the children are enjoying their swimming lessons. I have found myself justifying to other parents why my children are only in one activity. Maybe it’s my own insecurity, maybe they really do judge. Whatever. My family is happy.