With the school year starting up again, I started thinking about something I’m very passionate about: some families are just too busy.

This month, on Wednesdays, we’re looking at how LIFE can take away our enjoyment of marriage and sex, and to lead up to Wednesday’s post, I wanted to discuss something again that I last talked about on this blog about 5 years ago: sometimes our kids’ schedules get so out of hand that we have no time as a family–and thus as a couple.

When Katie was 12-years-old she started intense figure skating lessons. She had never taken lessons before, and she 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. She did it as a hobby for several years, and really enjoyed it.

But there was one aspect that was really strange to both of us.

Soon after she started skating lessons, we both felt like we had entered the twilight zone.

When we showed up for lessons, there were 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 was there for at least two nights a week, if not more (and this costs a fortune, too!)

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

But soon into the lessons she started to question it. She said to me a few weeks in 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 were only there because their mothers want them to be. Watching them 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 were strange, too. They seemed nice enough, but everyone I talked to has every child in an activity–or multiple activities. I talked to one mom who was 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 felt when I entered the rink (and I was really happy when Katie was 16 and could drive herself)  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.

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.

(I’ve also read some research that it contributed to my vaginismus, since my pelvic floor muscles were always engaged and I didn’t know how to relax, and I’m looking into that more for the vaginismus course I’d like to create). 

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.

(In fact, Rebecca’s finding swimming is really helping her as she approaches the end of her third trimester!)

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. In her book Why I Didn’t Rebel, Rebecca shared 7 characteristics of families whose kids were less likely to rebel (there’s never a guarantee, of course!). And one of those was that the family had a strong identity, and the kids identified with the family over their peers.

What if I told you that not all teenagers rebel?

And what if I told you that a lot of typical parenting advice makes rebellion more likely?

I interviewed 25 young adults, trying to figure out what made them rebel or not.

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.

So many times kids are in so many activities that their primary relationships aren’t even with siblings anymore, and families need to be together. 

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 had really gone their own way.

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 as a family and maybe, occasionally, throw a football around together. I think, in the long run, that may be more valuable.

What do you think? Am I really off base? Are kids’ sports teams worth it? Are lots of extracurricular activities worth it? Let’s talk in the comments (and I’m pretty sure many will disagree with me on this one!)

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