I have a problem. Yes, I’ll admit it. If you know me IRL, I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about it as it plagues me frequently. The problem is this: I occasionally panic because I think my kids aren’t doing enough activities.
I’ve suffered through the same conversation with myself for years (What? You don’t have conversations with yourself in your head?). It goes something like this:
Me: The boys aren’t signed up for any activities right now.
Myself: That’s ok, they’re doing deeply creative things at home.
Me: But X’s kids are on swim team. My kids should be on the swim team! They’ll learn discipline there, and focus, by being a part of something difficult that will stretch them. And both of them love swimming!
Myself: You’re doing it again.
Me: I KNOW! But Y’s kids play in tennis championships. The boys should join our tennis academy. It’s a family sport that they can play forever! I want them to be good at something, to have a skill. What kind of parent am I if I haven’t helped them develop a sport they love to play?
Myself: There’s still time.
Me: They’re getting older. I didn’t really play a sport when I was young. But I started running with my dad when I was 9! I haven’t run with the boys at all. They’re inside too much. They play too many electronics!
Myself: Junior ThreeYear has climbing.
Me: I know! But that’s only once per week. And is he really learning anything there? It’s a very basic group. Can I help him get better? Should he be going more? Now what do I do? More climbing, swimming, tennis? Which one to pick? They’re all so expensive. And they take up a lot of time. Maybe I’ll start with tennis lessons? Maybe karate would be a better choice…
Myself: You’re neurotic.
Me: I know.
Sharing my thoughts with you, half in jest, will hopefully not cause you to lose all faith in me as a somewhat-rational human being. But I really do cycle through a similar thought process too often for my liking. I think, if we’re being honest, we all have inner narratives that can go awry.
I’m obviously aware that my inner dialogue is nutsy. It happened to me this weekend, when we took the boys to play tennis and realized that they’re fairly terrible at it, despite periodic lessons and day camp this summer. And Mr. ThreeYear was actually the person who made the comment, “Y’s kids are playing in tennis championships.”
Yes, we’re comparing ourselves, and comparison is the thief of joy.
Plus, our kids don’t care. They don’t have any burning desires to join a swim team, play tennis, or learn karate. Junior ThreeYear loves to swim, but he’s also mentioned that he likes climbing club a lot because he doesn’t have to train at practice, he just gets to climb. And Little ThreeYear has quit every single team sport we’ve put him in, probably due to his Performance Anxiety, so I’m not sure that Tennis Academy or Karate will be any different.
So why am I driving myself crazy?
This Generation’s Plague
Plenty has been written about Gen Xers’ changing attitudes toward their progeny.
When we were growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, or so the meme goes, Mom popped a Tab and lit a Virginia Slim ciggie, while pushing us out the door to play all day. We’d only come in for a nourishing lunch of PB on white bread and Twinkies. Mama didn’t care what we were doing as long as she could sit back and enjoy her soaps in peace.
My own childhood, growing up in the ’80s, looked a little different. My mom, married to a pediatrician, was a bit more severe when it came to our diets (we did not eat eggs–the cholesterol will kill you, don’t you know?!), and she most definitely did not watch soaps. But I remember an unusually large amount of time spent outside, riding my bike around the neighborhood (including the incredibly steep hill down our driveway), and in the summers, “floating down” the river with my friends. I think we must have been around 8-9 when our parents just let us run (and swim) free without being around at all in case of an accidental drowning. Ahh, those were the days.
Helicopter & Lawnmower Parents
So why have things changed so much? Why do I feel such incredible pressure to mold my little guys into exemplary human beings? Part of me knows that’s hogwash. But the pressure is real. I think a vast majority of parents with kids under 15 feel it. Am I right?
I see a lot of the parents I know shuttling their kids around to activities all the time. On the weekends, they’re taking their kids to swim meets, tennis tournaments, track meets, and hockey tournaments (or at least they did back in New Hampshire).
I have family members who spend thousands of dollars taking their daughter to tournaments in her competitive cheering team. And she started when she was eight! It was almost every weekend for awhile. Their lives revolve around their daughter’s activities, and they spend so much money renting hotel rooms at her tournaments, paying for new costumes and shoes, and paying entry fees for her competitions.
Why do parents today feel the need to be so involved in their child’s every move, to get every little piece of parenting right?
There are arguments that parents are fulfilling an emotional need that’s not being met elsewhere through their kids, that they’re using their kids to meet their own needs. Ugh. Well, I definitely was the child who demanded to join every team, be in every activity, accomplish every goal. I remember my dad putting his foot down my senior year when I wanted to be Drum Major of the band and yearbook editor, along with myriad other activities.”Pick one,” he told me, “because you are not doing both.” I cried and complained, but eventually, I picked yearbook editor, because I loved it. And I am so glad that I did. It was the right choice, and our band’s drum major, my friend Wayne, did an excellent job.
I recognize that less is better, at least most of the time. But there’s another, very loud other part of me, that feels like my kids should be involved in more. And there are so many choices that it is decision overload.
Part of me always worries that the kids don’t have things they really love to do. Back in New Hampshire, I coached Junior ThreeYear’s Destination Imagination team, which was a creativity competition he was part of. It was amazing and he loved it, but there’s not a DI team here.
Part of me worries that my kids are missing out. It’s that dreaded FOMO disease again, rearing its ugly head. “What are my kids missing out on that they can never get back?” “Am I not doing a good job as a parent?”
The Money Part
I can also see why families spend so much on their kids. I think it’s rarely a purposeful decision, “Hey, let’s spend $1500 a month on Kaylee’s dance activities.” Instead, I think parents see their child enjoying an activity, then think, “Oh, maybe she can do this professionally one day/get a scholarship/build self-esteem/etc.” And it leads to more and more spending, as parents try to justify the vast amounts they spend on their kids with the idea that this money will be repaid by a child’s getting a scholarship to college one day, or joining an Olympic team, etc.
The Way Back
If I know that my thought patterns are crazy, how can I recalibrate my mind to get back on track?
This morning, I brought the issue up with my running friends.
By the way, running group– which costs next to nothing, has exercise included, social time included, and therapy time included–is the. best. idea. ever.
One woman, whose children are now grown, asked, “So you’re worried about them doing too much?”
“No, not enough.”
“And why, exactly, are you worried about that?”
I need those doses of reality when the FOMO/comparison part of my brain is lighting up hard core.
My running partners helped me brainstorm camps the kids could do in the summer to get more activities in. I thought that was a great idea. They also suggested several low-cost activities the boys could do now, like Coding Class or an Art Center.
A Simple Life
The ironic thing about my panic attacks is that I have actively worked to cultivate a simple life with my family for years. I had a conversation with them at the beginning of this school year, where I explained that they’d each get to do one activity each. And that was it. It was a great plan, and Junior ThreeYear picked climbing and loves it. Little ThreeYear still hasn’t picked anything, but he’s happy with coming home and making Lego creations and comic books.
The Wake Up Call
Last night, I came upon a blogpost linked by The Minimalists. It’s so good, you should read it in its entirety, especially if you have kids. It’s called Our Children’s Busyness is Not a Badge of Honour. The author writes:
“We need to give [our children] the space and freedom that a simple childhood provides and then support them by making opportunities available when they show an interest. We need to release the pressure, guilt and obligation we put on ourselves to give our children more than they need; organised activities can be wonderful and our son participates in a select few, but it’s healthiest as an a-la-carte experience not an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Because childhood is not a dress rehearsal for adulthood; it is its own unique and magical period of life that needs to be respected and preserved. I refuse to over-schedule my son’s time because in doing so it would leave no space for him to live his childhood. Even though he may be little, he deserves to feel a sense of control and at his age free play is the answer.
Yet, perhaps of all the elements of simplifying childhood that I’ve written about, simplifying schedules seems to be the one that causes the most controversy. Yet, it’s a relatively easy thing to do; there are no secrets or special tips you need to do it. It’s as simple as paring back, being mindful, choosing our YES’s and NO’s wisely. I think what stops us from simplifying is fear.
Tracy Gillett, Raised Good
Fear of missing out. Fear that we may be impeding our children’s future success. Fear of what others may think.”
There’s no doubt that I feel all of these fears from time to time. While it’s very clear to me that I’m not over-scheduling my kids, I do worry that I’m under-scheduling them. That I’m impeding their success. When I have moments like these, I’ve learned to let myself be. I’ve learned to talk with a lot of friends to get ample perspective, and I’ve learned to wait and not take any action until I can work through my feelings.
We can sabotage our best laid plans when we start to compare our lives too much to others’. I’m someone who has thought extensively about what I want my life to look like, and worked hard to get it that way. If I can succumb so easily, what about those who haven’t thought so extensively about their lives?
In the meantime, the boys will keep doing what they’ve been doing, no doubt happily, and I’ll keep working through my doubts and insecurities, reminding myself that we’re on the right path.
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