It’s nearly 3pm and, at schools around the country, parents stand outside classrooms in small groups, chatting as they wait for their children to come out of class. I am one of the waiting parents and I have noticed that there’s topic of conversation that comes up repeatedly – our children’s after school schedules. We list off swimming lessons, rugby practices, art classes, play dates… and commiserate over how busy our children are and the effort it is to ferry them around as well as getting dinner on the table and making sure homework gets done. Many, parents and children alike, seem to spend their afternoons rushing around and, by the end of the week, are ragged.
Once the kids come out from class, I watch a number of them drag their feet as they dawdle behind their parent, who is making a beeline for the car and urging them to “hurry up, we need to get to ballet”. The kids can’t keep up literally or spiritually. The reality of going to ballet every Thursday afternoon isn’t as exciting as it had seemed when they were begging Mum to sign them up, especially after having soccer on Monday, piano lessons on Tuesday and a playdate with Rebecca on Wednesday.
Why do we put our kids (and ourselves) through this? Here are some of the things I hear parents saying –
“He wants to do all these activities”.
“It’s good for her to learn new skills”.
“The afternoons are so long when the kids don’t have something to do”.
Are any of these really good reasons for exhausting ourselves and our kids?
I think the variety of after school activities available to our children is great but I also think our children need us to pace them, like a pacer might for a marathon runner. It’s like when they order the enormous piece of chocolate cake at the cafe but only manage to eat half of it – they couldn’t judge in advance how much they could eat. If we set up a lifestyle of constant doing and achieving for our kids, they will come to believe that they must always be “productive” in some way. They will go into adulthood overstretching themselves and not really enjoying any of what they do because they’re too tired trying to keep up with the lifestyle and expectations that have been created for them.
Overscheduling is symptomatic of our attitudes and isn’t the only pressure that we, as a society, are putting our kids under. There are many other ways that our children experience the expectation to keep doing, to achieve and to keep up too – anxiety from their parents & teachers to do well at school, complex dynamics within their peer group to negotiate, time spent on devices playing addictive games & subject to the impossible standards of social media, bedrooms overcrowded with more toys & gadgets than they can use… All these things have a place when well managed but, they also all take a child away from him or her self. A day crowded with activities, expectations and material things doesn’t allow our children time to know who they truly are.
Because, it is knowing who we are without our schedules, our achievements, our things and, even, our relationships, that is our source of peace.
I watched a very candid, thought-provoking documentary on Netflix this week called Not Alone in which a young woman who had lost her best friend to suicide as a teen interviewed other teens who had experienced depression and suicidal thoughts. At the end of the documentary, the teens spoke about what they were doing to find peace and move forward. They all mentioned things that were essentially about knowing and being their true selves – talk therapy, meditation and doing activities they deeply enjoyed, for example. These things had been missing from their lives previously.
One thing I noticed about the teens who spoke so openly in Not Alone was that they had been tuning in to the wrong things for their sense of self. Things that, in the end, sent them spiraling downwards – the expectations of their parents & teachers, trying to fit in with their peers, careless comments & dishonestly perfect images on social media feeds… It seemed that, if they had had a greater sense of themselves, they may have had more perspective and possibly avoided getting sucked into the black hole of comparison. It was in trying to “keep up” in some way that most of them had found themselves spiraling downwards.
WHAT WE CAN DO TO MANAGE THE PRESSURE ON OUR CHILDREN
I often hear reports that anxiety, depression and self-harm among teenagers is rising and showing up at an earlier age, even in children who are still single-digit by age. This weighs heavily on my heart – we used to think of teenagers as vibrant, optimistic, carefree young people but, instead, they are crumbling because society has created for them a lifestyle that feels impossible to keep up with. We’re all responsible. I’m sure there are things we parents can do while our children are young to nurture a perspective and a lifestyle that supports a sense of self strong enough to withstand some of the inevitable pressure. Here are some of the things I try to do for my boys with that end in mind –
Pace their activities – I leave time in our schedule for doing nothing in particular. My boys savour a day at home in the weekend – playing, pottering, doing whatever they feel like in the moment. Every child will have a different appetite for stimulation & activity and we need to be tuned in enough to find the right balance for them.
Encourage them to do things simply for the fun of it, without evaluating or measuring their achievement.
Have conversations that help them to know and express themselves eg. to explore and share what they really think and feel about things so that they can make good decisions for themselves, based on what they think, not what others think.
Provide an example – show my boys an example of how to live a well-paced life, in which I put my sense of who I am at the centre of my life rather than other people’s expectations. (This is the most difficult one for me)
The message that our children have to be working all the time (to achieve a goal, improve a skill, appear positively to others and generally keep up) is setting them up not for the happiness we expect but a sense of constantly having to prove themselves. Of, course, we are intending to give our children a “good start in life” but we’re often coming from a place of fear (eg. fear of our kids not fitting in or fear of them not being successful in life). It’s fear which we end up passing on to them.
Reaching for goals needs to be tempered with stepping back to get perspective and to rest. Being overscheduled during the primary years is a step onto the treadmill of always doing and never being. Being themselves. I’d rather my boys were happily themselves than unhappily keeping up.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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