|Wilmette Library History|
A few weeks ago, I read the following comment on a social media, published by a Guide leader :
"We took our Guides to the local playground with no plans except to just play outdoors. I was shocked at how long it took them to figure out what to do, and how many asked us for direction."
I echoed the stance taken by Carl Honoré in his book In Praise of Slow, and my own experience with children: many of them don't know how to entertain themselves anymore... probably because they are being entertained too much!
One of my friends has admitted to this herself. She says that part of the reason her kids need her so much is that she doesn't "leave them alone". In fact, another friend, whose kids are among the most independent I know, does just the opposite: she gives them a lot of space and free time, and does not intervene too much. Not only are they able to figure out something to keep busy on their own, they are also very well-mannered by 21st century standards (they are pretty young, too).
In light of this, it shouldn't be surprising that one of the first pieces of advice Kevin Leman offers in his book Have a New Kid by Friday is to cut down on extracurricular activities. According to him, taking that simple step can do wonders. He's not the only one to observe this: dozens of parents are deciding to put their kids on the "slow track" - and discovering all the benefits that can have for a child... and for the family: less behavior problems, less stress, less time and money pressure (seems like we all work like crazy just to be able to afford the latest sports camp or equipment for our little monkeys!), more enjoyment and better performance at the activities that are maintained. A non-negligible bonus: more quality time as a family. Instead of driving each kid to their innumerable activities, some families are learning to stay home, turning off the TV and video games (more on that later), and play/chat together.
An excess of extracurricular activities and other forms of entertainment and parental overinvolvement will impede not only children's independence and behavior, but also, according to some studies, essential skills such as:
- language skills
- social skills
- conflict resolution skills
- motor skills
- spatial skills
- ability to find their calm on their own
- ability to entertain themselves on their own
Who would want to impede the development of such skills in their child? No one! In fact, the reason we entertain our kids so much is precisely because we think it will help them develop useful skills (and also because we feel guilty for working so much, but that's another topic)!
Unfortunately, we are mistaken. All those sources of entertainment do not do the job they are supposed to do, especially when we resort to them too much. We think we are doing this for our children, but we are in fact shortchanging them. More and more children are experiencing burnout. In early years that can translate into unwelcome behavior. As teenage years approach, the young athlete or prodigy might also drop out of his/her sport or musical practice altogether despite promising results, because s/he is so tired of it. Some of those "dropouts" were kids who did enjoy their activity in the beginning, but with time, it's become too much. (As a coach, I've seen talented young swimmers follow that path.) Adulthood, for those kids, is not an easy ride either.
Consider the following questions:
- Is my child cranky?
- Is my child whiny?
- Is my child needy?
- Is my child defiant?
- Is my child showing signs of fatigue or stress? (e.g. frequent tummy aches, headaches)?
- Do I have to bribe my child regularly?
Even if the possible causes are multiple, being overstimulated is one to consider. But what exactly qualifies as overstimulation? The following questions might help us figure it out:
- How many hours a day does my child spend in front of a screen (TV, computer, video game, DS, etc.)?
- Does my child "need" a screen to remain entertained and well-behaved? (i.e. what happens if we do not use any screen for a full week (or even a full day) - including in the car and waiting rooms or while we're fixing supper... do we face a potential melt-down? What does that tell us about our child? I have one word: addiction).
- How many hours a week does my child attend organized activities and classes? Or, put differently, how many days a week does my child have NO organized activity outside of school?
- How often do I buy something new for my child (regardless of the amount it costs)?
- How often do we have to rush a meal (including making unhealthy choices for the sake of speed) in order to get to an extracurricular activity in time?
- How often does my child not sleep enough because of activities that end too late or start too early?
- If we do have a couple of free hours ahead of us, and if all the screens are turned off, how often do I refrain from organizing an activity (such as making a craft or baking cupcakes together) in order to let my child have real free time?
- Considering all the different sources of entertainment listed above (screens, activities, classes, new toys/objects, organized activities at home), if I was going to do an experiment and avoid them all, how long do I think my child and I would last, and what does it mean?)
- How many hours a day does my child spend at home?
- How many hours a day does my child have of true free time without "drugs" (screens)?
- Does all that seriously make any sense?!?
Our children need (and deserve) to be left alone. They also need to experience "plain old boring life". They need to know what silence is. They need to be able to hear the sound of their own thoughts.
This is not a praise of doing nothing at all. It's an invitation to look for balance. Sometimes, the kids themselves are better than us at finding it. During the weekend, since nothing was planned, and since I had to work on a big translation project, D asked the girls what they felt like doing. "Let's just stay home and do nothing!" is what they replied enthusiastically. No screens were turned on, either. What did they end up doing? They played outside in the snow. They played inside with Legos and Playmobils. They read books. They drew. Left to their own devices, they were happy. And I promise they were still learning something!
I believe what makes it possible for them to spontaneously engage in those activities is the fact that we give them the opportunity, by "leaving them alone", on a daily basis. I know other kids who can do that, some of which are much younger. They have been allowed to develop it, and that is a true gift (for both the child and the parent).
As a parent, I did not always think that way. I used to fill my children's days to the fullest. I had good intentions. Luckily, however, I know better now.
Which reminds me of my own childhood. Despite a certain number of activities and the occasional use of a screen (very occasional back then), I cannot count the number of hours I sat in my room or in the grass or on a tree branch or on a snow bank, chatting with my brother or with a friend... I also spent a very healthy amount of time alone, simply "thinking about life". I have wonderful memories of those quiet moments.
Why don't we parents offer that to our kids? The younger the better, but it's never too late to start giving our kids some slack. Let's start right now!