'gymnastics' photo (c) 2006, Tod Baker - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario. Here’s this week’s!

A fundamental premise of Economics is that everything has an opportunity cost. If I buy a chocolate bar, I’m not buying a pop with that money. But while we’re used to opportunity cost when it comes to money, we don’t tend to think of it when it comes to time. And yet the time crunch can be just as acute as the budget crunch. When you schedule your own lives, or your kids’ lives, with many activities, you’re simultaneously denying yourselves whatever else you could have done with that time.

So much for Economics. Now let’s turn to Math and calculate how much disposable time the average mom with school-aged kids has in the course of a week. Weekday mornings, before school, with the chaotic rush are a write off. Kids get home around 4, and most are in bed by 9, so that leaves five hours per weekday, assuming parents are home that whole time. On the weekends, let’s give you twelve hours a day. Over the course of the week, that adds up to forty-nine hours. For comparison’s sake, the kids spend about forty hours in school and with school peers. So it’s almost even.

But if you subtract an hour a day for chores and hygiene, an hour each weekday for homework, four hours a week for meetings or time with other adults, and the two hours a day minimum the average child spends in front of a screen, you’re down to about nineteen hours a week. In those nineteen hours you have to teach them to become independent, to be responsible, to not give in to peer pressure, to handle money well, to be nice to their friends, and to get along with their siblings. That’s a heavy task.

That’s why I’m adamant about family time. It is more important than sports lessons, music lessons, or even extra academic work. And the more time your child spends away from your family, the more time he or she spends immersed in a culture which is often anti-family, consumer oriented, and shallow.

I was talking with some parents who have their daughters in competitive skating. They’re at the rink four nights a week, all over the dinner hour. I asked one mom, “How do you ever eat as a family?” She laughed and admitted, “Oh, we don’t. We just grab food on the run.”

Their daughters may be enjoying skating, but when they’re adults, what will matter most is not whether or not they could land a double axel but whether or not they were emotionally healthy and responsible. And that kind of character is forged in the family. Teachers and coaches can help, but kids need their parents.

Let’s stop tying our kids to a schedule which denies them so much family time. They may enjoy it, but in the long run, what is the most important goal for you as a parent? Some families may be able to squeeze everything in, and more power to you if you succeed! But I have seen families who have thought they were doing it well, only to find fifteen years later that their kids really struggled. It’s a big risk. It may be one you want to take, because your child is gifted at something. Just realize it’s a risk. Count the cost first, so that you can be sure that you are doing everything you can to preserve your family life in the time you have left. But I hope most of you may choose just to hang out at home and maybe, occasionally, throw a football around together. Personally, I think that’s more rewarding.