This summer I’ve been thinking about which activities my kids are going to participate in when fall rolls around. We homeschool, so I do like them to get out and about and see other kids, but I’m also very aware of over-scheduling. It’s homeschool, not run-around-town-school.
I think one of the biggest myths perpetuated to parents by the culture is that we’re doing our kids an epic disservice by failing to sign them up for a heap of extra-curricular activities. We’re made to think that if our kid doesn’t do Scouts, music lessons and a team sport, then he’ll never get into college, he’ll be a failure, and his whole life will be ruined because his parents didn’t have the time, money or inclination to sign up for all the things.
This is another one of those paradigms that I wholeheartedly reject. I think kids nowadays are over-scheduled and stressed out. I think having too many activities leaves children with no time for creative/imaginative play and ultimately leaves them stunted in their development. If someone is telling them what to do and ordering their activities almost every second of every day, the kid has no opportunity to think for himself. How are kids supposed to grow up and be entrepreneurs and innovators if they never get a chance to make any of their own decisions or manage their own time?
Like many things in our culture, extra-curriculars aren’t inherently bad; we just take them too far. If one activity is good, three must be better!
Last year my son did Trail Life (a Christian version of Boy Scouts) and my kids both joined a rock climbing club at a local climbing gym. We also did an art and music co-op one morning a week. My son loves Trail Life and he’s met some great friends through the group. Both kids really enjoyed climbing and it gave them a lot of confidence, as well as a heck of a workout. My daughter loves music and is getting to be quite the little musician, thanks to the music co-op. All of these activities were good for my kids, but they come with a price- the money and time we spent.
My husband and I weighed out the benefit/cost ratio on each activity and decided to drop climbing. Even though it’s awesome, neither kid wants to be a competitive climber and I doubt either one would pursue climbing as an adult. It was a fun activity, but it’s not giving them a skill that I think either one will care about later in life. I’m not knocking climbing, or sports in general. There are lots of lessons to be learned from physical discipline, challenges given by coaches, and goal-setting for athletic pursuits. My kids just aren’t that into it beyond a fun diversion a couple times a week.
Trail Life has a strong emphasis on character and integrity, as well as on practical skills. We really like the whole ethos of Trail Life and the other parents who share our values. We felt like it was something our son could do all the way through high school that would give him practical skills and surround him with a community of like-minded people who will challenge him to be his best. We decided to keep Trail Life.
We also decided to keep music lessons for my daughter. She has become very serious about her piano playing. She practices on her own every day, without being reminded. She reads music, something I can’t do and couldn’t have taught her, and she figures out songs by ear as well. We feel like playing an instrument is a skill she can keep and enjoy throughout her entire life, so it’s well worth the money.
At first my husband and I both wondered if we were making a mistake by pulling them out of their one sport. We live in the sports-crazed South, and admitting that your child doesn’t play a sport is like saying you don’t like grits or fried chicken or something equally woven into the fabric of Southern culture. It is very counter-cultural in the South not to have your kid enrolled in sports. Most kids start when they’re toddlers.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s not like that in other parts of the world, and it wasn’t like that here until the last 20 years or so. Humans have been raising children for thousands of years without expensive lessons in 6 different activities.
We don’t feel like either of our kids are going to be professional athletes, or even college athletes, and both of them have talent in other things. We didn’t feel the return on the investment was enough to warrant the money or the time spent shuttling them to practice and games.
For me, it’s about the philosophy of life that I’m building in my home. I am a proud American, but there are parts of American culture I don’t like, and this over-scheduling of kids is one of them. I’m not trying to raise my kid like most other people are. My number one priority isn’t getting them into a prestigious college so they can be saddled with debt and then be forced into a job they may hate but have to do for the money. I’m definitely not looking to raise one of these kids who is 27, still lives at home, mooches off his parents and makes his Mommy schedule his doctor visits. It seems that American parenting culture has produced a whole lot of kids like that, forever in some purgatorial no man’s land between childhood and adulthood, with a room full of participation trophies and no real skills. Since I’m not looking to raise that kind of kid, I don’t need to follow that model.
I only have a few short years with my kids. The time flies by. One minute they’re in diapers; the next thing you know, they’re in Driver’s Ed. My time with them is precious, and I only get one shot at this parenting thing. If they’re going to be away from me being mentored by some other adult in some activity, I need for the quality of both the mentor and the activity to be excellent. I’m not blowing money and time on an activity just to satisfy some cultural requirement. If I sign my kid up, it’s because I see some long-term value in both the activity itself and in the adults who are teaching or coaching.
Sometimes I feel like there’s a conspiracy in our culture to take us away from our kids. Whether it’s putting them in public school all day, parents working long hours, or kids having too many extra-curriculars, it seems that families are not really thriving, just keeping their heads above water, swept away by the current of busy-ness. Many families eat on the go, don’t have time for meaningful conversations about their lives, and are each concerned with their own activities and stresses rather than functioning as a unit or a team. Moms and dads become ATM’s and taxi services. There isn’t time for much else.
Long ago I made a commitment to slow living, to cutting out things of my life that bring me stress and don’t contribute to the vision I have for my family. Trimming our extra-curriculars to one activity per child is one more way I cultivate a peaceful home. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your kids’ activities, here are some tips to figure out what to keep and what to toss…
- Can you afford it? Whatever the activity is, if it puts a financial burden on your family, then don’t do it. You should not be going into debt so that your kid can play a sport. I’m especially aware of this one, because I’m into horses and I know what an expensive hobby that can be. At some point you just have to explain to your child that you can’t afford a show pony or competitive cheer, or whatever it may be. It’s a hard lesson, but a necessary one. Your child will have to learn limits at some point, and this is as good a time as any.
- Is it a practical life skill or an activity they can still do when they’re 80? If your kid wants to take wood-working classes, that is a skill few people have and one worth learning. If she can learn how to make furniture, she might be able to turn that skill into a career or a side hustle. The money spent on classes now will give your child a useful skill that will last into adulthood. Similarly, if your child is into music, he can play an instrument his entire life, even when he’s 80. That’s money well spent.
- Is your child exceptionally skilled? If your child is a phenomenon on the soccer field and you see the Olympics in his future, then it’s probably worth it to spend a bunch of money and time letting him play. If your kid is average at best, and has no hope of ever playing in college or professionally, then maybe re-consider.
- Is your child deeply passionate about the activity? If you have a child that has figured out very early on the one thing he’s totally obsessed with, then I think it’s good to let the child pursue that passion. I think it’s important to cultivate talent and interest as much as we are financially able.
When I was a kid, I was completely obsessed with horses. I grew up on an island off the coast of North Carolina, and there were more surfboards than horses. I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to pursue what I loved and, even if there had been more opportunities, my parents couldn’t have afforded them. I never took riding lessons, never had a pony, never went to a show. When I was 29, I bought my first horse. Now, ten years later, I have two horses, one mule and one donkey, and a trailer to haul them in. I was truly passionate about horses and I found a way to have them as an adult. I am so thankful to be able to ride and be around horses every single day because I waited 29 years to be able to do it.
The point of that story is that kids will find their way into whatever it is that they’re supposed to be doing eventually. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have the money or time for your child to do everything he wants. Kids thrive when they have parents who love them, are interested and involved in their lives, and make family time a priority. Extra-curriculars are not a pre-requisite for having a happy family.