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Finding a Happy Balance - Tackling the daily challenge of too many activity options

Published: 12/15/2011 by by

» Health and Wellness

So many choices, so little time! As parents, many of us find it it difficult to balance our children’s activities.  How do such small people have such big social lives?  As we gear up for the next semester and activity deadlines loom, how do we help our children make smart choices that keep them active and keep us all sane?

As a mother of four children, I know it can be crazy. Although it is great to be busy and for many “too busy” is a badge of honor, it is also exhausting. Last winter in my household, I had a daughter taking ballet, swimming lessons and skating, two other daughters taking swimming and dance, a son playing soccer, and myself curling, playing hockey and playing soccer. Plus, we went skiing as a family every second weekend. Do we love it all? Yes!  Some days was I exhausted? Yes! Do we need to change it? Yes!

Occasionally we just have to say “NO!”  One year when my son was playing hockey and indoor soccer and taking guitar lessons, I received this advice from a fellow hockey mom “I let them play one sport and do one musical/art activity per season. I feel that gives them a rounded and balanced life and also gives them a sane parent,” she stated.

The Parent Education Network – a Parent Information and Resource Centre created under the United States No Child Left Behind program – agrees. In a pamphlet published “Activity Overload” they state, “It takes commitment to limit activities to a more manageable level.” 

Now a rounded and balanced life sounds great in theory. A few years back one of my curling teammates was concerned about her daughter`s inability to fall asleep. Liz mentioned that her daughter would go to bed and then lay in bed awake for several hours. Trying to rectify the problem, and thinking it was due to insufficient physical activity, she enrolled her daughter in another activity: a dance class. When this did not work, they sought the help of a psychologist, who looked at the family’s life, which included both parents working, swim club twice a week for the whole family, figure skating once a week for one sibling, curling for Mom, hockey for Dad, and downhill skiing for everyone each weekend. The diagnosis was simple: too busy! Although the child herself was only in a few activities, she had to attend the sibling’s activities and needed more downtime. But is a balanced and rounded family life even possible, given today`s endless options and pressures?

Janet Desautels, the creator of One Heart Unlimited Personal Development and herself a mother of four, delivers insightful workshops specifically designed to help harried but well-meaning parents gain balance for themselves and their families.  Moving toward simplicity, an important element of life balance, involves thinking in different ways about how and where we use our energy, and freeing ourselves to make new choices. Reducing distractions, setting priorities, reframing perspectives about daily events, and learning to be present even in the midst of chaos are all important aspects to master in rising to the challenge of attaining balance.

The overactive family lifestyle is being called hyper-parenting by psychiatrist Dr. Allen Rosenfeld in his book The Overscheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap.  In his book he states that childhood is for preparation; it is not a performance.  Parents often try too hard to enrich their children. While it is a valid concern when the family is entirely overloaded, Time Magazine noted in 2007 that children do better when part of scheduled activities, correlating involvement with better well being and lowered involvement in drugs and sexual activity. So finding the happy balance – what your children and you can handle – would be a reasonable compromise. Perhaps we need to look at the long-term goal as parents: to raise decent adults who are kind and independent. Aren’t extracurricular activities meant to be educational and fun?

Is not the goal “to raise responsible adults”? If we cut out the fluff and concentrate on our long term goal, it is not raising a superstar hockey player or a child who can play every musical instrument, it is having an independent, and kind adult. Jean Twenge, the co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic, says that as children turn into young adults they go into the workplace and expect to be stimulated all the time because their worlds were so structured with activities as children. In a recent article, How To Land your Child In Therapy, Jeff Blume a family physiologist says we’re confusing our own needs with our kids need and calling it good parenting.  I personally know that when my son stopped playing soccer, one of my first thoughts was, “I will miss the soccer parents.” So, it was all about me. Interesting idea and a good reality check…who are the activities really for?

So after delving through all that research I came up with some straightforward conclusions to help limit my own tendency to overschedule! Firstly, set limits. This could be the one sport, one art idea, or it could be the number of practices or tournaments. Secondly, build relationships. Families need to build strong relationships with friends, and enjoy life outside of activities. Thirdly, and this may sound counterintuitive with those who have packed schedules, be unproductive. Unstructured play is a highly underrated joy. Take time to go for a walk, read or play a board game with your family. Lastly, listen to your inner voice. Do what is right for your family, not what is right for the coach or for your friend’s carpool. 

We know that being busy for the sake of busy-ness is not good and, generally, downright unhealthy. We also know that it is a constant battle of choices to we need to try and win everyday. Sometimes we are more successful than others.  As David Elkins reports in his article “The Overbooked Child” available online at Psychology Today: “Children and families need time for themselves and each other. It isn’t the activities that are unhealthy; it’s the fervor in which we engage in multiple activities.”

We are a work in progress! I want my children to have at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day but at our house this winter we are going to prioritize differently and be more selective about how our “activity” time is spent.  And, when someone says “so what have you been doing?”, I may just happily and confidently say, “nothing.”