By Jacki Post Ashkin, LCSW-C
We all know the proverb: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” As I think of the demands placed on children these days, I often worry that we might be raising a generation of Jacks.
When I recall my childhood, I remember spontaneous games of dodge ball and Red Rover in our neighborhood, and spending hours in the woods behind our houses exploring tree forts, pretending we were special agents being chased by “bad guys.” We would lie on our backs seeing animal shapes in the clouds and try to make whistling sounds by blowing through blades of grass. Even now, decades later, the sweet smell of honeysuckle on a warm breeze instantly takes me back and I feel a rush of joy remembering that sense of pure freedom. Back then, there was plenty of time for getting lost in imagination and free play.
Today, children’s lives seem more structured and scheduled — dare I say, overscheduled. It sometimes seems as if raising children has become a competitive sport. Parents feel pressured to make sure their kids are the best, the brightest, the most athletic, the most artistic. True, there are more opportunities for extra-curricular activities now than when we were kids. But somehow, it’s as if we have been brainwashed into thinking we are bad parents if we don’t give our children all those opportunities; we fear they’ll be left behind and won’t be successful if they don’t do it all. As a result, everyday life takes place at hyper-speed as we and our kids rush from one activity to another – school, religious school, organized sports, art lessons, clubs, community service, tutors, etc.
What has happened to the joy of just being a kid? Children are becoming so used to having all their free time structured for them and guided by rules that they may not be developing the internal creative skills they need. Many lack the ability to manage boredom, to “think outside the box,” to create their own happiness, or even to relax.
Our intentions are good, but we may have forgotten the importance of having balance in our lives, and we are inadvertently passing along the pressure to our children. This can be a recipe for burn-out and it comes at a cost to kids and families. Fatigue, irritability, anger, trouble concentrating, meltdowns, sleep problems, slipping grades, anxiety, even headaches and stomach aches may well be signs of overload.
As you set schedules and priorities, consider these tips:
Create balance. Cramming a huge number of activities into the school year, with the justification that “we’ll get to relax in the summer,” doesn’t work. Throughout the year, it’s important to give kids time just to hang out and play with friends. This builds a sense of self and sets patterns for our children’s future relationships. We want our children to feel that they are loved and appreciated for who they are, not just for what they accomplish.
Be a role model. Children need to see that we also value unstructured time and that we make time for the family to slow down and connect with each other.
Trust your instincts. If life feels too hectic and busy, it probably is. Look at what’s filling up the schedule and, even more importantly, what’s missing (like family time and down time). Make some hard (at times unpopular) decisions about what shifts you can make, what activities you or your child may have to give up, cut back, or delay for now. Work to restore balance.
Listen to your child, but also pay attention to the non-verbal messages. Ask your child if they feel their days are too busy, or if they wish they had more time to play with friends or just relax after school. But remember, if you’ve been living an overscheduled lifestyle, your child may not realize there is an alternative and may say everything is fine. So, attend to the non-verbal signs of overload, which speak volumes and may contradict your child’s words. Be careful not to slip into a rationalization like, “but my child likes doing all these activities.” Children like candy, too, but we know too much isn’t good for them, so we limit how much we let them eat. Similarly, if too many activities are overloading your child and your family, you need to set limits because that is what’s best for your child’s well-being.
Before adding another activity, weigh the costs. Consider how this new activity will affect your child and everyone else in the family – financially, emotionally, physically, socially, etc.
Don’t rush to rescue your child from boredom. Make a few suggestions but let them figure out what to do with their time. This allows your child to develop creativity and problem-solving skills, which are essential throughout their life.
As parents, we want the best for our children. But in this increasingly complex and competitive world, one of the greatest gifts we can give them is the freedom to discover the simple joys and wonders of childhood. Soon enough they will have to settle down in the ordered adult world. With your help, blissful memories like fireflies, kickball, and family Scrabble games will keep childhood alive in their hearts.
Jacki Post Ashkin is Director of Community Connections at Jewish Community Services.
Jewish Community Services (JCS) is dedicated to providing programs and services that help people of all ages and backgrounds achieve their goals and enhance their wellbeing.
To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or 410-466-9200.