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Making Room for Nothing

Parents often have times where they feel like they have to be in multiple places at one time to manage their children’s calendars. But what happens when the imagined need becomes real?

Most parents have moments where they feel like they are rushing from one children’s activity to another. Feeling like you always need to be in multiple places at the same time is trouble waiting to happen.

Hillary Homzie’s schedule for her family was a house of cards, a careful stacking of one activity on the other. Then one day it came toppling down. A change in plans with a carpool partner, when all three of her kids had somewhere to be, left her scrambling. “I remember dropping off one kid at a swim party and not even being able to have the time to arrange how my other child got home,” she explains. That same day, she also had to get to a doctor’s appointment where she was diagnosed with multiple ailments, brought on by stress. It was then she realised something had to change.

Hillary’s story may sound extreme, but an overflowing family calendar is more common than many realise. According to a research study conducted at the University of Michigan in the US, children experienced a major decrease in time spent in unstructured activities between 1981 and 1997. A follow-up to that study showed free time for kids continued to decrease into 2003. With shrinking amounts of downtime, you have a recipe for collapse.

Scale back for balance

The solution for the craziness? Scale back. Start by searching for ways to leave empty slots on your calendar and continue until you’ve reached an equilibrium that satisfies your family.

This may sound like a risky proposition. After all, we’re encouraged to provide our kids with opportunities to learn and grow. Dr Wendy Grolnick, professor of psychology at Clark University in the US and author of Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids, says, “Parents feel a lot of pressure to have their children get involved in a lot of activities. There’s the ramped-up competition: the feeling that they have to be in sports before they’re five to get in college.” 

But can there be too much? Dr Grolnick notes, “After school activities are wonderful. Research shows kids gain an advantage—they do better in school. Really it’s about finding a balance.”

Anastasia Gavalas, a mother of five, realised this early on before her children reached kindergarten. She was determined to choose balance from the get-go. Gavalas says she asked herself, “How can I structure my life so it supports what I believe in my heart?” The answer came in a move from a busy suburb to the laid-back lifestyle of a smaller town. “I recognised that competitiveness is not what life is all about,” she says. “Parents are so fear-based. We think if we don’t give our kids every experience they will miss out or fall behind.”

Hillary’s solution to her crazy schedule was to limit her children’s activities. “I had my kids rank their activities,” she explains. “I just decided that each kid could only do two activities. That’s it. So even if they loved something they had to drop it.” Her middle child’s schedule was reduced the most, from six different activities, most of them two and three times per week, to two activities.

Talk it out

Dr Grolnick advocates talking to your children about how to free up time. “Sit down together with your kids (depending on their age) and pick the activities they love the most,” she said. “Then negotiate how many times a week they will participate in each activity.”

Take the time to listen and understand why your children want to do the things they do. See if they can find the enjoyment of some scheduled activities through a more unstructured means and offer to join them. Hillary’s former tennis-playing son now finds time on the court with his dad or a friend.
According to Dr Grolnick, the amount of sustainable activity will vary by child and family. It’s not about a set number of activities; rather, it’s about balance. “Some families are in a bunch of activities and are thriving,” she explains.

And as Anastasia learned, a balanced life is an intentional life. Evaluate your priorities. Probe to find your children’s priorities. Then organise your calendar around those. “Taking stock and evaluating after a season is better than signing up wildly. Parents can talk realistically about what the kids can do,” says Gavalas.

Enjoy the downtime

According to the University of Michigan study, children’s time spent in unstructured outdoor activities, such as walking, hiking or camping, fell by 50% over the period of the study. Regaining this freedom is priceless.

Hillary noticed the change in her highly active middle son. “Now he’s seeing the light and is talking about the need to have downtime. He’s no longer asking me if he can do fencing or whatever sport is next on his list.”

Anastasia’s family is also enjoying a quiet lifestyle. Her eldest daughter volunteers at a horse farm. Her second daughter attends a dance class twice a week. And her sons each play two sports. They all have more time for playing and being outside.

Hillary agrees. “Our life is still busy, but there are afternoons where the children and I can walk up to the top of the small mountain where we live and go for an adventure walk. The children can actually jump on our trampoline and swing on the swings—in their own backyard!”

Where many people see a slower schedule as a loss of opportunity, Dr Grolnick notes that it can actually open doorways to opportunity. “Kids will find their passion if they have the space,” says Dr Grolnick. “If they’re too scheduled they don’t have the space to find what will hook them. If you have to push them to do things they don’t feel good about, it’s counterproductive. If you give them space, they will gravitate toward something.”

Ultimately, leaving empty spots on the calendar is about giving kids that space. Space to be a kid. Space to play. And space for discovery.


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