Back in the day, when we were kids, we went to school, maybe we played an instrument, and if you were like me, you were one of only two girls in your town who played youth baseball. Besides that, we played outside until someone’s mum blew a slide whistle at sundown that signaled us all to go home. Then we played Barbie or Matchbox cars or read actual books or maybe did Mad Libs. After that, we called it a day. And that was the way of the world. Now, though, our kids are racing from group to club to team to rehearsal, eating dinner on their lap in the car, and every parent is secretly praying for a monsoon to come so practice will be cancelled.
While it’s great to see our kids busy and engaged and spending their time productively, they still need time to just be kids. Because without that, they’re missing some really fundamental aspects of being young. Stuff that we don’t always realize they’re missing until we’re forced to focus on it or it’s too late. Without the ability to relax and decompress in an unstructured way, our kids have no outlets for relieving stress or anxiety or solving problems and they become conditioned to look to us to fill all their time. And when we can’t, or we’re not available, they’re lost.
By not giving our kids the freedom to explore and be creative and rely on themselves to occupy at least a little of their time, we’re setting them up to be codependent little robots who just cycle from activity to activity and can’t think or entertain themselves on their own. Our kids still need downtime and free playtime and freedom to make their own choices, in spite of the fact that most parents today feel ridiculous guilt over seeing their kids without anything to do. Even for a minute. I know I have. Probably because I, myself, prefer to be busy and productive, as a rule. Then again, I’m a grown-up. And I also appreciate my quiet time to do nothing. But kids aren’t that evolved yet. And they do need their time to be structured. Just not all of it. Which is exactly why we need to teach our kids that it’s OK to do nothing once in a while—it’s OK for them to shut off their brains for a little while. In fact, it’s necessary. “There is a myth that doing nothing is wasting time, when it’s actually extremely productive and essential,” says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, coauthor of Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn—and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less. “During empty hours, kids explore the world at their own pace, develop their own unique set of interests, and indulge in the sort of fantasy play that will help them figure out how to create their own happiness, handle problems with others on their own, and sensibly manage their own time. That’s a critical life skill.”
I know it’s easy to get hung up on not wanting to disappoint our kids. Every parent wants to be popular with their children. But learning to say no is way more important than being popular. We have to be the ones who keep our kids and their schedules in check. And it’s tough, because our kids are seeing their friends playing on multiple teams and being involved with Girl Scouts and drama clubs and hip-hop classes, and they want in. Why? Because they don’t want to miss out. For the exact same reason that adults overextend ourselves. Because we don’t want to be left out. We’re seeing all the other moms and dads standing in line with their registration forms and feeling like we’re doing our kids a disservice by not signing them up too. In truth, we’re idiots. Because our kids need a break from responsibility just as much as we do. Being part of something larger than just ourselves is an essential part of growing up. It speaks to teamwork and collaboration and flexibility. It teaches us how to communicate and builds self-esteem. It helps us learn how to build relationships. All invaluable lessons. But knowing when enough is enough is on us. Saying no to the third travel field hockey team is on us. Teaching our kids that quality is greater than quantity is on us. And the meltdown that will come from us overscheduling them is squarely on us