Parenting Dilemma: Soccer Mom vs Zen Mom

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.

13 thoughts on “Parenting Dilemma: Soccer Mom vs Zen Mom

  1. I love this blog and completely agree with you about finding the right balance of activities and family time. Amen!

  2. First, congratulations on your post!! Husband read it and thought it was super interesting. It made him think. As hopeful future parents, it is always interesting to us to see how actual parents manage. In the beginning it seemed to be about the kinds of baby food and one’s philosophy on light spanking. Now, it is definitely about extra activities and the taxi run every Saturday. And it’s true, a lot of girlfriends have no weekend because they’re ferrying one kid to ballet and another to basketball. Of course, this is just the micro level view. The broader questions now seem to be when to push and when not too. When it’s okay to quit and when it isn’t. What’s best for them now and what’s best for the future.

    Your post made me think of the Tiger Mom and what she would say. Of course, that’s an extreme. It also made me realize how the decision cannot just solely be about the kid, you have to think of the family as a whole, the balance among the children. Your sanity not only as a parent, but an individual.

    My mother used to ferry me nearly every night to dance class. Her life was my activities. I took it totally for granted, of course. And yes, there were a lot of rushed dinners, or split family dinners, or pit stops at Dairy Queen. And while I’m grateful she sacrificed so much for something that was so important to me I do wonder if skewed our priorities a little. And look, I’m not really starring on Glee now, am I?

    I have no idea how we’ll handle this when the time comes. Good thing I know where to reach you.

  3. New to all this, so hope I’m not butting in too much… but it’s an honor to be here and pitch in with a completely ignorant and inexperienced perspective. I’ll write more in a little bio if I’m allowed, but I don’t have kids (even though I’m nearly 40 and happily married), and frankly am a little intimidated by the prospect. I secretly loathe Malcom Gladwell because who knew that his concept would turn in to a to-do list for moms so as not to waste one of those precious 10,000 hours for their kids. Life throws enough at us women, expected to be educated and eloquent and travelled and beautiful and empathetic and creative and selfless all at the same time, without being made to feel guilty all.the.time.

    Flapper Pie, the fact that you ARE a mom in this cynical, complicated, ridiculous post modern age gives you hero status in my mind. I could really give a crap about whether its the Soccer vs Zen variety so long as you get through each day with everyone’s fingers and toes in tact, rinse and repeat every day thereafter. I’m in awe.

  4. As a kid who had her parents in a constant marathon from violin to drama to synchronized swimming to dance and back again (and as someone who doesn’t have kids so shouldn’t actually get a vote) I have to say I would weigh in on the “let them be kids” side of the debate. Yes, all my lessons gave me lots of opportunities to try different things and exercise all kinds of different skills, but I feel that (for me) they also emphasized achievement too much. I linked all the attention I got from my violin-playing, acting, etc. to those activities, and it has taken me a long time to see that I have value even when I’m not achieving anything.

    In general, I feel that our society values career and “success” too much, and it’s hollow. Even the most successful people in the world have to leave their careers behind at some point. And if your whole identity is wrapped up in your career or in whatever that success is to you, that’s going to be a real crisis. Success in that sense isn’t sustainable, and sacrificing family and health for it isn’t worth it.

    You know what I remember most about my lessons? The times with my parents in between them. Driving to a lesson with my dad, running down the stairs with him after, going to MacDonalds with my mom between swimming and violin. I wish we’d had more family dinners. That time together is precious and it goes fast. (I’m not trying to beat up on my parents, here. They did the best they could, and I really did want to do all those things.)

    I applaud you for insisting on seeing your kids as themselves, as multi-faceted human beings with value whether they are composing a concerto or taking a nap; instead of little award-winning, ego-building machines. You’re probably (although – what do I know?) building a much stronger sense of identity for them.

    • I guess it depends on what we define as success. I think a career can be fulfilling and enriching and valuable internally and externally and there’s nothing wrong with it. It shouldn’t define us 100%, but if it does and that’s what we want, so be it. I confess I take the same view with respect to motherhood. I value it, (hell I wanna be one!) but I don’t want it to define me 100%. But some women do.

      When I first moved out to the middle east, I met a lot of mommies who lunch. The kind of mom who outsources her childcare, her housework. Not the kind of mother any of us really know. It was so easy for me to judge them- me this career girl busting her butt to prove how much she could contribute to society. I’m sure they judged me too- poor girl doesn’t see what REALLY is important in life. One told me my husband would never be happy if I didn’t stop traveling to take care of him. But after some time, I learned that while I couldn’t measure them on my scale, that didn’t diminish their value. And of course, the opposite is true.

      I have sacrificed family, friends, quite a bit for a career. And I have no regrets about it (even miss it some times). There does have to be balance. But in my case, without all those dance lessons I went to, I might not be as over achieving, but I wouldn’t have gone as far either.

      Maybe what’s key (and flapper pie probably gets my aha moment already) is the individual kid. Maybe we can still be exposed to twenty things if we want, if that’s the kind of kid we are and we love it for the right reasons and our parents pay attention to that. Maybe our folks have to remind us why we’re doing all this, trust the little kid answer, and know when to look a little deeper than that answer. I have a friend who’s letting her son drop his guitar and his football because he says he doesn’t want to do it. But he’s beginning to drop everything whenever it gets hard. There’s something else going on. And that isn’t healthy either because he likes it. So, comes down to the parent, the kid. No magic path. Or rather, an entirely magic one.

      • Yes, absolutely, I love that response! I agree that career can be fulfilling, and I didn’t mean that it shouldn’t be. But something I’ve been grappling with is thinking that it’s everything, and I’ve come to realize that for me, it isn’t. And when I thought it was everything, it wasn’t healthy for me. Same goes for motherhood. I think there needs to be a “you” or a “me” that is nourished and gets to be identified and exist beyond whatever roles we want to fill in life. So, yes, career shouldn’t define all of who we are, nor should anything else.

        And true, there’s probably no single answer for any parent or any child, and we just need to muddle along and do our best, correcting if there seems to be an imbalance in one direction or the other. Absolutely.

      • Career isn’t everything. I agree. Especially if the idea of it makes us unhappy. If our ability or inability to make career mean everything doesn’t feel good, then it can’t be right. If career does make us feel good- I guess that’s another story. As someone who is now having to make her life without a clear career (after having been wedded to one for so long…), I miss it. It has always been a large part of how I defined myself. Even now, I feel a little undefined. But at the same time, that lack of definition is fulfilling in a new way. And I know people who would be happier if they just gave up on the ladder someone else has propped up before them. You can only climb it when you’re clear about where your going.

  5. When I was a kid I played t-ball and my most vivid memories of that game are of feeling fat in my uniform, enjoying left field, and crying because I was terrified of an impending thunderstorm threatening the last innings of one of our games. As an adult I asked my Mom why she didn’t put me in dance and she finally told me as if admitting a big secret, “Oh you were such a clutz! I thought you’d be terrible at it! I’m sorry, honey.” LOL! I laughed and then I marvelled that all those years later… she cared whether it had been the best decision for me.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t be forced to do things we’re not good at or don’t like but my memories as a child, my favourite memories, the ones that remind me of who I am, are almost never of organized activities. I remember turning over rocks, building forts, walking to the park, cleaning fish tanks, playing in the sandbox, planting flowers with my Mom, making pies, water skiing with my Dad, and riding trikes around the deck over and over and over again with my brother.

    We have to learn to persevere, to be disciplined, to struggle and strive, because those efforts (if not the outcomes) define us. I also think that the more we’re exposed to the more we grow and the more options we have as people. But neither would I want to discount the value of also having some time as a child to discover who you are when left to your own devices…

    • this image of you being chubby and playing t-ball. love it.
      to totally contradict what I just said to B.Honey- I was watching this reality show the other day about a dance academy. And hubby pointed out how I’d begun to huddle into a small fetal womb in the corner of the sofa with a look of terror on my face as I watched the head of the Academy drill her girls towards perfection. My dance life was defining- I wouldn’t have met most of you without the arts. And yet, clearly there’s some kind of icky residue. You’re right, my kid moments are watching worms in the rain and saturday cartoons, and random kid adventures. Maybe because they were slipped in between the other stuff. Maybe if all I had was free time, they wouldn’t feel as special? Who knows. I kind of loved my suppers on the run, it was exciting. Maybe that’s why to this day I can’t stand still and I love eating out.

  6. Pingback: Piece of Mind? Peace of Cake. | Mother Sugar

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