Does Your Kids’ Schedule Make Life Too Busy?

With the school year starting up again, I started thinking about something I’m very passionate about: some families are just too busy. A few years ago, before my blog really took off, I wrote a three part series on creating a kid’s schedule that contributes to sanity and family time, not detracts from it. Most of you haven’t seen it, and so I’m going to tweak it a bit and run it again today, tomorrow, and Thursday. It’s so important that we think about the big picture–and what we really want for our families.

Does Your Kid's Schedule Squeeze Your Family Time?Do you feel like your family is too busy?

My 12-year-old daughter has recently started intense figure skating lessons. She’s never taken lessons before, and she’s learned quite a bit on her own. But she decided it was finally time for lessons, so we signed her up for one night a week.

It was then that I felt like I had entered the twilight zone. When we showed up for lessons, there are about 25 other children there, with various coaches. One coach immediately grilled me, “why only one night a week”, in a rather judgmental tone. Turns out everyone else is there for at least two nights a week, if not more (and this costs a fortune, too!)

Now these lessons are two hours long. They interrupt the dinner hour (they’re 4:30-6:30). But I felt that it was okay to do once a week, since we’re together most other nights. It was important to Katie.

But she’s starting to question it. She said to me this week that nobody there actually smiles. They’re not practising so that they can have fun and learn a skill; they’re practising to be the best. In fact, many girls are only there because their mothers want them to be. Watching them this week I felt like standing up and yelling, “Take a chill pill, everyone! Nobody here is going to the Olympics. So just have fun!”. But I didn’t. I didn’t want the other mothers attacking me.

And the other mothers are strange, too. They seem nice enough, but everyone I’ve talked to has every child in an activity–or multiple activities. I talked to one mom who is out with the kids four nights a week. I gasped and said, “when do you eat dinner”? She laughed and said, “we don’t! We just grab it on the run, or eat in shifts.”

On the surface everybody looks like nice, middle class families, but I really feel when I’m entering that place that the whole world has gone mad. No child should be away from their family that much. Families need to be together. And stressing sports over family life gives a mistaken idea of what’s really important. I have seen so many nice kids grow up in a particular sport, working like crazy at it, and not having a life. Or, when they’re older, not being particularly attached to their families. Even though they were good kids, they didn’t spend that much time with their families. They did school, did the sport, and did their homework. And that was it.

How can you raise a child to be a Christian like that? You need time to just sit around and do nothing. And you need to eat together.

Before You Let Your Family Get Too Busy, Take the Long-Term View

So let’s take the long-term view and figure out what we’re really aiming for as a family. Let’s focus on one specific goal, and one very general one. First, the specific: we want our kids to develop fitness habits. After all, one of the reasons that we put our kids in sports lessons is so that they can stay fit! We live in a very sedentary society, and we need to encourage all the exercise we can, right?

Do Kids Need Extra Curricular Sports to Stay Fit as Adults?

I’m not so sure. I took ballet as a child. Two nights a week when I was 13 and 14, one night a week from 6-13. I actually was quite good. And you know what? I can’t do any of it now. I took adult ballet lessons when I was 30 for fun, and wrecked my knee because I tried to do the “turn-out” as much as I did at 14, and found my body no longer cooperated. Ballet isn’t the type of thing you can just keep doing. It doesn’t keep you fit. Sure it keeps you fit then, and it does help your posture (and it taught me to suck my stomach in, which I still do today), but you can’t keep it up. There’s no natural place “just to do ballet” in your life. So it doesn’t encourage long-term fitness.

What about sports? Hockey and soccer are almost the same. Some men are involved in leagues as adults, as are fewer women, but it’s not widely done as an adult. So you can’t rely on those things to keep you fit. You may love them, but if you’re only playing hockey as an adult once a week over the course of four months, it isn’t going to cut it.

Skating or gymnastics? Don’t even get me started.

There’s really only one sport that I can see that does have the potential to keep you fit, and that would be swimming. (And, of course, track and field, but few children do this as an extracurricular activity.) So you may have your child in some sport for 5-10 hours a week, and that sport will do diddly squat for them when they are adults. It isn’t going to encourage fitness. It’s simply going to keep them fit right now. There is some benefit to that, of course, and those kids who like being fit are more likely to adopt other fitness activities, but the sport itself won’t do much.

If you really want your children to be fit, they need to develop habits that they can continue easily as an adult. Biking. Walking. Playing soccer and frisbee and touch football with family. Working out at the Y together (if they have kids’ programs). Swimming together. Cross-country skiing. Jogging. As kids get older, these are all things you can do with them, which will keep you fit, too. They contribute to family time, they don’t take away from it. And they’re more likely to meet your goals of raising a child who is healthy than putting that child into hockey 10 hours a week. Even more importantly, if your child is in extracurricular activities multiple nights a week, you won’t have time to develop these activities as a family. So they won’t get done.

How Do Extra Curricular Sports Impact Kids’ Values?

Now let’s look at something more general. I believe that children who are most likely to adopt their parents’ value systems are those children who most identify with their parents and their family as the primary influence in their lives. They’re kids who enjoy their parents, enjoy their family, and want to remain close. Kids who primarily identify with peers do not tend to adopt their parents’ value systems, as Judith Harris’ book The Nurture Assumption showed.

How, then, do you get kids to identify with the family? You have fun. You hang out. You spend time together. You make the default in their lives “being with the family”. So many times kids are in so many activities that their primary relationships aren’t even with siblings anymore. And if you stop identifying with your siblings or your parents to such a great extent, it’s unlikely that “family” will be considered your first priority. Besides, most sports now require practices or games or tournaments on Sunday mornings, and so many of the Christian parents I know are missing more church than they’re actually attending. Fill up your kids’ schedule with sports rather than church, and what message is that giving kids? It’s saying, “your primary identity is in sports, and Christianity is something extra,” not the other way around. I think that’s dangerous.

Kids need to put first things first in their schedules. Besides, you can’t just have fun on a schedule. You need downtime for that. You need time for people to laugh. You need time for siblings to decide that spending time together is actually worth it. Often kids need to get bored before they will do something together, but if everything is hyper scheduled, they’re never bored, and they don’t turn to each other.

There’s nothing wrong with boredom. It’s the birthplace of many a great idea or great game. Kids get bored, so they need to find something to do. That’s when they reach out to little, bratty brothers or sisters. That’s when they make up games. That’s when they use their imagination.

Let’s stop making our kids live a hectic schedule that denies all of us family time. They may enjoy it at the time, but in the long run, what is the most important goal for your family?

Some families may be able to squeeze everything in, and more power to you! But I have seen families who have thought they were doing it well, only to find fifteen years later that their kids weren’t following God and weren’t overly involved with their families. It’s a big risk. It may be one you want to take, because your child is gifted or really wants to do 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. I think, in the long run, that may be more valuable.

Other Posts in this Decluttering Series:
Declutter Now
Family Time, Opportunity Cost, and Kids

PSSSTTTT….Did you hear?

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Overscheduled Kids

'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.

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Are Extracurricular Activities Helpful?

'Govs v Nobles g hockey 2011-0387' photo (c) 2011, Bill Brine - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

This is a continuation to my Saturday post, which was a continuation to my Thursday post! So you may want to scroll down and read those first. But here’s the basic problem I’m looking at: do we as parents sign our children up for too many activities, and does that have a toll on our family time? I believe it does, and I laid it out on Saturday that the average family with school aged kids has, at maximum, 19 hours a week of potential quality time. That’s not much. And that’s before they do any lessons. Take skating for 8 hours a week and you’re down to 11. Not a pretty picture.

But let’s take this one step further. I believe that with parenting it is so important to keep the long-term goal in mind. We talked on Saturday about what those goals for our children should be. Let’s focus today on one specific one, and one very general one. First, the specific: we want our kids to develop fitness habits. After all, one of the reasons that we put our kids in sports lessons is so that they can stay fit! We live in a very sedentary society, and we need to encourage all the exercise we can, right?

I’m not so sure. I took ballet a ton as a child. Two nights a week when I was 13 and 14, one night a week from 6-13. I actually was quite good. And you know what? I can’t do any of it now. I took adult ballet lessons when I was 30 for fun, and wrecked my knee because I tried to do the “turn-out” as much as I did at 14, and found my body no longer cooperated. Ballet isn’t the type of thing you can just keep doing. It doesn’t keep you fit. Sure it keeps you fit then, and it does help your posture (and it taught me to suck my stomach in, which I still do today), but you can’t keep it up. There’s no natural place “just to do ballet” in your life. So it doesn’t encourage long-term fitness.

What about sports? Hockey and soccer are almost the same. Some men are involved in leagues as adults, as are fewer women, but it’s not widely done as an adult. So you can’t rely on those things to keep you fit. You may love them, but if you’re only playing hockey as an adult once a week over the course of four months, it isn’t going to cut it.

Skating or gymnastics? Don’t even get me started. Those aren’t going to keep you fit as an adult, either.

There’s really only one sport that I can see that does have the potential to keep you fit, and that would be swimming. (And, of course, track and field, but few children do this as an extracurricular activity.) So you may have your child in some sport for 5-10 hours a week, and that sport will do diddly squat for them when they are adults. It isn’t going to encourage fitness. It’s simply going to keep them fit right now. There is some benefit to that, of course, and those kids who like being fit are more likely to adopt other fitness activities, but the sport itself won’t do much.

If you really want your children to be fit, they need to develop habits that they can continue easily as an adult. And what are such habits? Biking. Walking. Playing soccer and frisbee and touch football with family. Working out at the Y together (if they have kids’ programs). Swimming together. Cross-country skiing. Jogging. As kids get older, these are all things you can do with them, which will keep you fit, too. They contribute to family time, they don’t take away from it. And they’re more likely to meet your goals of raising a child who is healthy than putting that child into hockey 10 hours a week. Even more importantly, if your child is in extracurricular activities multiple nights a week, you won’t have time to develop these activities as a family. So they won’t get done.

Now let’s look at something more general. I believe that children who are most likely to adopt their parents’ value systems are those children who most identify with their parents and their family as the primary influence in their lives. They’re kids who enjoy their parents, enjoy their family, and want to remain close. Kids who primarily identify with peers do not tend to adopt their parents’ value systems, as Judith Harris’ book The Nurther Assumption showed.

How, then, do you get kids to identify with the family? You have fun. You hang out. You spend time together. You make the default in their lives “being with the family”. So many times kids are in so many activities that their primary relationships aren’t even with siblings anymore. And if you stop identifying with your siblings or your parents to such a great extent, it’s unlikely that “family” will be considered your first priority.

You can’t just have fun on a schedule. You need downtime for that. You need time for people to laugh, and be themselves. You need time for siblings to decide that spending time together is actually worth it. Often kids need to get bored before they will do something together, but if everything is hyper scheduled, they’re never bored, and they don’t turn to each other.

There’s nothing wrong with boredom. It’s the birthplace of many a great idea or great game. Kids get bored, so they need to find something to do. That’s when they reach out to little, bratty brothers or sisters. That’s when they make up games. That’s when they use their imagination.

Let’s stop giving our kids deliberately to a schedule which denies them so much family time. They may enjoy it at the time, but in the long run, what is the most important goal for your family? Some families may be able to squeeze everything in, and more power to you! But I have seen families who have thought they were doing it well, only to find fifteen years later that their kids weren’t following God and weren’t overly involved with their families. It’s a big risk. It may be one you want to take, because your child is gifted or really wants to do 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. I think, in the long run, that may be more valuable.

Time, Opportunity Cost, and Kids

'Time' photo (c) 2008, Alan Cleaver - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/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. So the opportunity cost of the chocolate bar is whatever I could have bought–a can of pop, 20 jujubes, two stamps, whatever.

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. As commenter Valleygirl said earlier this week (and I paraphrase), why do we yearn so much for those bygone years of sitting on the porch, and then overschedule our lives so much that we have no time for it?

When you schedule your own lives, or your kids’ lives, with many activities, you’re simultaneously denying them whatever else they could have done with that time. There is an opportunity cost.

So much for Economics. Now let’s turn to Math. Let’s look at how much disposable time the average mom with school-aged kids has in the course of a week. We’ll be nice and even assume that she doesn’t have an outside job, to give her as much time as possible.

Weekday mornings, before school, are a write off. You rush around and get the kids on the bus or out the door. Not really quality time. Then they’re at school, usually home around 4:00. So let’s begin our day at 4. Most kids are in bed by 9, so that leaves 5 hours per weekday.

On the weekends, let’s give you 12 hours a day, with 12 for sleeping. Over the course of the week, that gives you 49 hours. For comparison’s sake, the kids spend about 40 hours in school and with school peers. So it’s almost even.

Now let’s start being realistic:

Time spent making dinner, doing laundry, cleaning up, mopping the floor, and other housework that can’t wait: 1 hour a day (and I’m being nice. It’s probably more). Down to 42 hours.

Time spent doing homework with your child: 1 hour a day (this can include anything that goes into organizing them for school). Down to 35 hours.

Time spent on meetings or with other adults. Chances are you have at least one during the week: a committee meeting, a small-group meeting, an evening out with the girls, dinner out with your husband, whatever: 3 hours a week. Down to 32 hours.

Time your child spends in front of some sort of screen. The average child spends 3.5 hours a day in front of either a video game, computer, or television. But let’s be nice. Let’s say it’s only 1.5 hours a day. Down to 22 hours.

Time your child spends bathing, getting dressed, cleaning their room, or looking after him or herself. 1/2 hour a day, or 3 hours a week. Down to 19 hours.

So in a family with no play dates, no working mother, very little technology addiction, and no lessons only gets 19 hours a week of quality time when people aren’t doing housework, aren’t in a meeting, aren’t taking a shower, and aren’t making dinner. That’s 19 hours when you can potentially hang out with your child, take a walk, play a game, do a hobby in the same room, talk, or spend time together. I would guess that for many families it’s less than that.

Note, too, that schools get 40 hours. Schools have 40 hours, you have 19. How are you going to spend those 19? Some of them are going to be spent eating dinner as a family. Some will be spent in church (I counted that as quality family time, though chances are for most of that your children won’t be with you). You don’t have a lot of time to work with.

And in those 19 hours you have to teach them to do chores, to become independent, to love God, 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.

So let’s look at it from another point of view. What is it that you want your child to be like as an adult? What are the most important things for you to pass on? If I were to rank them, I would say this:

1. Love Jesus
2. Be able to form close personal relationships (including, I hope, marriage and motherhood)
3. Be independent, able to get a job when they need one and able to care for their own homes.
4. Be responsible with money and personal possessions
5. Be generous.
6. Adopt healthy attitudes and behaviours (including fitness).

Perhaps some are out of order. Obviously I would like them to reach all of those goals. But I would rather have a child who is 300 lbs. and who loves Jesus than one who is fit but can’t hold a job and doesn’t know God. So fitness, while it’s important, is lower on the list.

Therefore, if those are my priorities, in that order, how am I working towards them? They’re not automatically going to develop those traits. They need to be taught, nurtured, and mentored in them. They need to be shown, as they hit the teen years, that the culture which preaches against almost all of these things is wrong and not something you want to emulate.

And if your children are in school, you are fighting against a system that for 40 hours a week teaches that God is irrelevant to their lives. It teaches things that are not conducive to forming healthy marriages. It teaches unhealthy attitudes. It does very little to teach responsibility. So not only do you only have 19 hours to teach these things; you need to dedicate some of those hours to explicitly working against what the school is already teaching.

That’s why I’m adamant about family time. It is more important than sports lessons. It is more important than music lessons. You can never get that time back. And the more time your child spends away from your family, the more time he or she spends immersed in a culture which, in many ways, is antithetical to what you believe, especially if you are Christian. Sports may teach discipline, for instance, but they teach it absent from God. They teach it as its own reward, rather than being a spiritual discipline in and of itself. You can become too focused on performance and worth in that arena, rather than on worth as a human being.

On Monday I’m going to add one more thought regarding sports lessons, and one more regarding siblings, but this post is getting long enough as it is. So what do you think? Please, let’s discuss this! Am I off base? Do I have my calculations wrong? Have I left something important out? Let me know!