Una's Chat-March 2012
The pace of society has really quickened since we were young, and that can be seen most clearly in the after-school lives of children. Over the past ten years, I’ve noticed that parents come to me more and more to ask about how they should expose their children to activities and provide structure; yet, not overwhelm them. I’ve also noticed that parents are growing increasingly more uncomfortable with how to manage unstructured time.
Current culture sends the message that children must participate in every realm imaginable: sports, music, art, etc. Considering the pressure that children face as they get older to be really solid in certain areas (sports in high school or music programs) it’s easy to see how parents are facing tough realities when raising children in today’s world. Parents also have dreams for their children, and they want them to be exposed to life in as many ways as possible. These combined pressures can slowly lead to over-scheduled children who are facing every waking moment with something they have to do. As adults we can choose to allow and sustain this stress in our lives; however, children often have little or no control over their time and are at the mercy of what we choose for them.
Managing Structured Time
Be Deliberate In Your Choices
Before you dive into figuring out your child’s extra-curricular activities, think first about your life as a child and the pace, simplicity or complexity you enjoyed. What memories do you have? What stuck with you? What did you carry with you into adulthood? What do you wish you had more or less of? As you consider the best use of your child’s free time, keep these ruminations in mind and overlay them with the knowledge of who your child is.
Weigh the Pros and Cons of Your Child’s Requests
You may face situations where your child becomes very excited about lots of different things and asks to pursue all of them. Though you want to follow the excitement, you may have reservations about the load that you can all handle. The reality is that while a child can begin many activities with excitement and motivation, an overwhelmed child can quickly become discouraged and demotivated. Just as you know that eating too many cookies will make your child hyper or sick, responding to requests is another area where your discretion is required to look to the future and determine what is truly in your child’s best interest.
In those moments when your earnest child is using all of his considerable charm and guile to coax you into saying yes to the second or third activity, be comforted by this thought: Your child has time; time to pursue other interests at a later date. They don’t all have to be learned at once. Recall your own life’s journey. Did you learn all of your sports in the first grade and begin instruments at the same time, or did you learn some things during the school year and some in the summer? Some when you were in elementary school and others when you were in high school or college? While it may not seem it in today’s culture, your child will have time to acquire the exposure you dream about. But by spreading things out, the exposure becomes richer, more enjoyable and more likely to be remembered as something positive.
Choose Activities With Your Child in Mind
When trying to figure out the fine line between enough and too much, the factors you use to weigh your decisions will vary depending on the child, the day, and everyone’s energy. Consider who your child is as a person: active, intense, a challenge seeker, or low key, easy going and content to dream?
Some of us need more “down time” than others and “down time” means different things to different people. Consider your child’s preferred mode of operation. Does he lean towards individual pursuits that are thoughtful and creative, or does he prefer team endeavors that are more active and physical? Parents sometimes choose activities that they feel will encourage their child to develop skills or expose their child to something they feel he or she needs to develop. This is an admirable goal, but one that should be undertaken thoughtfully and with caution. For example, the parent of a child who is inclined towards individual pursuits may feel the need to enroll his or her child in a team sport to offer experience or “toughen up.” If this causes undue stress, the strategy can backfire and reinforce the child’s aversion to collective activities. There are other ways to support a child’s ability to manage collective activities when he is called on to do so.
What is your child’s natural bend?
Music, art, science, drama, sports, technology? He or she may have one or many. Talk with your child about his or her interests and take some time to observe classes to check for tone and format. Narrow your list down to choices that suit your criteria, and once you are comfortable with the options, consider letting your child choose which activity he or she wants to enjoy during that season or part of the week. If you meet resistance when setting limits, remind your child that there will be opportunities to pursue the other activities, but they can’t all be done at once.
What is going on in the rest of your child’s life, and almost more importantly, in your life?
This is a big one, as the pace of your life almost inevitably determines your child’s. Is your child in school or some sort of care for half of a day, or a full 8 to 10 hours? In other words, how much time does your child get to “just be,” to play alone or with friends using his or her own agenda?
If your child is in school 8 to 10 hours a day, it is unlikely that he or she will have the enthusiasm or energy during the school week for anything other than time to play alone with siblings or with neighborhood friends. Think about how you can’t wait to get home to change into comfortable clothes, get necessary chores done, get the kids to bed and have time to just do your thing. Your child also needs time to play and “be,” so factor that in when looking at the weekly family schedule.
Managing Unstructured Time
It is essential, even more so for an active/intense child, to have unscheduled time alone or with friends. It is during these times that children come to know themselves; they learn what they enjoy, how they function best, where their interests lie, what they’re good at, what challenges them and how they respond to challenge. They learn how to work on developing skills at their own pace; what skills they want to develop and what’s important to them. They learn to be themselves away from the expectations, rules, judgment and criticism of adults. It is during those times that the richness of the child’s inner life is nurtured. To know your child as much as any one person can know another, observe him or her in these moments. Children can, of course, gather some of the same information from scheduled activities, but never on their own terms, for children are highly attuned to the expectations and judgments of the adults in their lives.
Parents often ask me strategies for how to keep children occupied during unscheduled time. This question is moot if your child has nearby friends to play with. Remember, children 5 and above need lots of time in the company of other children; it’s a burning drive for this age child. This is when they truly learn the rules of social engagement and how to manage themselves and others. When other children are not available, your child can divide his time between his own activities and join in with household activities such as cooking, laundry and vacuuming. This is excellent together time that provides purpose and a common goal. (Be careful not to use household activities as a threat in response to a claim of boredom.)
When you do hear the “I’m bored” moan, explain to your child that boredom is a wonderful thing; it means that the brain is ready to find something exciting to do. It may help the child who has trouble deciding what to do to make a list of all the possibilities. The list can be created at a time when he is feeling enthusiastic and can be posted and grow as new and wonderful things are discovered.
Make “Stuff” Available
Make sure that your child has access to a supply of disparate “stuff” such as paper, yarn, beans, wood, cardboard, glue, etc. that can be put to a multitude of uses. Provide manipulatives that are as open ended as possible; I have yet to meet a child who can resist Legos. Your older child will likely be able to work on the same construction project for weeks. Be flexible and open to the creation of forts, tunnels and other creative structures with your furniture and in your home. Be prepared to allow your child into the yard, appropriately dressed for the weather, to get wet and messy and any other state of dishevelment he may conjure up. Be prepared to make baths an any-time event complete with toys and tupperware. Tolerate a minor flood in the kitchen with a full sink and the previously mentioned, wonderfully adaptable tupperware and make funnels, pitchers and sieves available.
Most importantly, allow your child to understand that there are times when he may work or play with you and times when he is expected to do so alone. Your younger child will most likely check in with you regularly and that’s completely appropriate; give the needed hug or reassuring word and send him off again.
As with everything else, your child will do what you do. So, as usual, the ball is in your court. It behooves you to lead a life that allows your child to witness balance, interest, creativity and joy.
August 16, 2012 |