“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.” ~ Anne Frank
We are well aware of the impact that being over-scheduled and too busy can have on us. For many, it leads to stress, anxiety, and sleeping difficulties, that in turn can lead to mental illness, troubled relationships and poor work performance.
In the On Being article The Disease of Being Busy, Omid Safi says, “This disease of being ‘busy’ (and let’s call it what it is, the dis-ease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and wellbeing. It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most in our families, and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave.”
So knowing this, why is it so common to see kids busy and highly scheduled in many different activities while still being expected to achieve academically?
Over-scheduled versus enrichment?
Bruce Feiler talks about this concept in his New York Times article Overscheduled Children: How Big a Problem?, where he quotes clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Thompson – “As a general principle, there is a line between a highly enriched, interesting, growth-promoting childhood and an overscheduled childhood,” he said. “And nobody knows where that line is.”
What really got me thinking about this again, as I have many times, was listening to parts of a Raising Humans podcast Reducing Academic Stress where Ethan, a college-bound senior in the midst of college application stress, was interviewed. Ethan talks about the pressures both extrinsically and intrinsically placed on him to ‘pad his CV’ so to speak for his post-secondary prospects. He reflected on the amount of time he spent engaged in extra-curricular activities at the expense of his personal relationships. In the podcast, they discussed how emphasis should be placed on enhancing a child’s emotional and social skills as well as their strengths, as opposed to their academic achievements. Unfortunately, the latter is often where the self-worth of a student resides, and therefore, when they perform poorly in school, they in turn feel like inadequate children/people.
Where are parental motivations coming from?
Our oldest child is currently in grade 12, his senior year of high school, so the topic of his future and post-secondary education have been ongoing for awhile. My husband Colin and I had quite diametrically opposite experiences when it came to parental pressure growing up and I think there is value in both. As parents now, we have decided to strive to aim for somewhere in the middle. This was a conscious choice we made many years ago.
To start, we signed both of our kids up for a plethora of activities from athletics, to dance, to the arts. You name it, we either looked into it or tried it. But when our kids started to drag their heals about the activity, we didn’t push it. Ideally, we saw it to completion in most instances, but being honest, not always. The way we viewed it – school is non-negotiable, but everything could be.
In this vein, our goal has been for our children to feel intrinsically motivated to achieve in school as opposed to feeling that conditions have been put upon their success. We also want them to choose their own paths based on what they are interested in. We certainly aren’t pushing the medicine route that we both chose, which has its own inherent concerns as voiced by medical student Tarun Rahman, however, if that is what they choose, we will support them all the way.
As we know, parenting isn’t a ‘plug-and-play’ endeavour – we each learn our own path, but we have to look at what our own motivations are when it comes to what we push encourage. Whether it is FOMO, fulfilling our own desires, “I didn’t have these opportunities”, or the hopes of standing out on a university application, I would say our best intentions are not what is truly best.
As Dr. Thompson also said in the New York Times article above, “Is the child giggling when you drop them off or pick them up? Or are they solemn and dragging their feet?”
Following our own passions and fostering our strengths is important at any age, and the sooner we tap into them, the better.
Schedule non-productive downtime
To truly relieve some of these pressures our children may face in school, at home or in the community, it is important to look at ways to ‘just enjoy being a kid’ without a defined goal. Pediatrician Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, also known as Seattle Mama Doc, says she likes to diagnose people with “recreational deficit disorder” where she encourages teens to engage in activities that are purely, unproductively fun, “with no other purpose than enjoyment or relaxation”. She gives examples of baking and playing with a pet – two things my teens definitely enjoy doing.
I hope this offers some reflection and maybe even eases some pressure on us as parents when we allow space to be created between external goals and internal desires, both for us and our children. We need to enjoy and make the most of our time with our children, for as Gretchen Rubin says in her poignant video – “The days are long, but the years are short”.