I’m enjoying mommy fall break right now—those few weeks between the end of soccer season and the beginning of winter sports. At our end-of-season soccer party, all the moms were breathing a sigh of relief that the season was over. I think all of us moms secretly wonder why we do these after-school activities. Will we or our children regret how we’ve spent our time once these precious years of childhood are over?
A fourteen-year-old that I know just decided to quit competitive swimming after nine years of three-day-per-week practice. He told his mom that he felt he had missed out on the free time of childhood, because he had spent his childhood at practice. He didn’t play in the neighborhood with friends and form clubs and make secret hide-outs the way his sisters had. His mom was surprised and sad—she had always felt glad that she could give her son competitive sports, an opportunity she didn’t have the time or money to give to her daughters when they were young.
Pediatric research shows that kids need time for free play and time to bond with their parents. Critical problem solving and social skills are learned during childhood through creative free play. In one study , a group of preschool children were given a 75 min block of creative free-playtime once per week throughout the school year. At the end of the year they compared these kids with their peers who did not get the special creative free time. The kids who participated in creative play had improved verbal, art, and problem-solving skills compared with those in the standard pre-school environment.
Kids and parents also need time to bond together. Good parent-child bonding makes for a peaceful, happy house with less discipline, less yelling. And what if you don’t spend bonding time with your kids? Lack of parent-child bonding is associated with a host of things you don’t want for your kids: adolescent suicide, aggressive behavior, depression, and substance abuse.
Do you feel like most of your one-on-one time with your kids is in the car? Do you secretly rejoice when a sports event is rained-out? Do you give up family dinner or chores to get kids to activities? If so, it might be time to re-evaluate your family’s extracurricular plan. Here are a few guidelines to help you pick which activities are best for you and your family.
- Kids need education, exercise, socialization, free-playtime and rest. Which of these goals are you accomplishing through your extracurricular activities?
- Does this activity teach a skill that you can teach your child yourself? Don’t underestimate your own skills and talents, especially when teaching young children. Teaching your child yourself is a great way to bond with them. If you are disciplined enough to get a child to a music class once a week, why can’t you be disciplined enough to teach them music yourself? Why not schedule a weekly family soccer game?
- Does this activity cause you to neglect your other family obligations? Do you skip family dinner? Are you hauling a toddler around to an older child’s activities? Does that toddler get enough free-playtime? What aren’t you doing for your other children and/or your marriage?
- What would your child be doing if they were NOT doing a particular after-school activity? Would they be playing with siblings? Helping cook dinner? Reading? Consider the values of these activities.
- Choose activities that teach skills that your child will use in adulthood. Chances are your child will not play field hockey or clarinet after college. Field hockey may teach teamwork and leadership and provide great socialization. Could she also learn these skills through tennis or another sport that she might use as an adult?
- How much time do you spend in the car going to and from activities? Is it worth the benefits of the activity?
- Consider the long-term financial cost of an activity. Toddler gymnastics can be affordable, fun, and great for exercise and motor development. But if you child sticks with gymnastics for 10-15 years, how much money will you spend? Would that money be better spent elsewhere?
As for my fourteen year-old friend who quit swimming, I think he’ll be fine. I’m glad he knows himself well enough to realize that swimming isn’t right for him. Sometimes it shows more character to know when it’s the right time to quit, than to continue with something that isn’t meant for you.