Most middle-class kids play a sport or two each season, play an instrument, take art or drama or dance, and belong to a scouting organization–in addition to meeting homework demands and participation in religious activities.
From 1981 to 1997, structured sports time for American children doubled, evidence of the trend of over-scheduled kids, according to a study by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Meanwhile, playtime declined by 25 percent and time in unstructured outdoor activities dropped by 50 percent.
By choosing to provide children with so many “opportunities” for achievement, families are sacrificing precious relational time. From 1981 to 1997 there was a phenomenal decrease in household conversations. That’s not surprising considering the shrinking opportunities to talk, such as family dinners (down 33 percent) and family vacations (down 28 percent), according to Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam.
Many families cannot have children who excel in multiple enrichment activities and a high-quality experience of family connectedness, which takes unstructured time together to develop.
So why do we sacrifice valuable family time for the sake of children’s busyness?
–A multitude of positive activities;
–Parental feelings of responsibility to offer every opportunity for success, and the fear that missed opportunities have long-term consequences (even though experts agree that what happens inside the family is more important to a child’s future than what happens outside);
–Underlying belief that downtime is wasted, achievements are what count, doing is more important than being;
–Parental attempts to live out own dreams through their children; and
–Peer pressure on parents and children.
Instead of going with the cultural flow, each family can consciously choose children’s activities:
–Name and prioritize family values (such as time together, family worship, academic effort, physical health, artistic appreciation, giving to less fortunate);
–Set standards based on values (such as family dinner four nights a week, or one day a week with no activities, or each child playing an instrument, or one sport per child per season);
–Pay attention to each child’s needs and interests;
–Limit new activities;
–Know when to quit an activity;
–Make time for play–individually, with friends, with family; and
–Relax and take a BIG and l-o-n-g view of your child’s future–seeing benefits of strong family bonds as greater than specific childhood accomplishments.
Cutting back even a little, or resisting the pull to do more, may increase the peace for each family member, the experience of love unrelated to achievement, and the joy found in those activities children do pursue.
Karen Zurheide is a freelance writer in Edmund, Okla., and a member of BCE’s Board of Directors.