In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Goldilocks finds the Bear’s porridge too hot, too cold, or just right. Just as in the iconic children’s story, many parenting questions come down to finding the “just right” balance for your child. Today I am thinking about formal, organized activities. Childhood for my son is not as fluid as I remember mine being. I remember that I often had an activity such as gymnastics or dance, but I don’t think I ever did more than one at a time. I spent a lot of hours in independent play, either alone or with friends.
I really struggle with deciding how much is too much, how much is too little, and what is just right for my son. He is currently in soccer, karate and music lessons every week. There are other things he does occasionally and more structured activities and clubs he could join through school. Each week he has just one school day and one weekend day without an appointment . Plus he must practice the music and deal with any school obligations daily. Each activity was chosen for very good reasons and there are always more things that we could do, other activities that seem really cool. We often have to decline invitations because he has something already in that time slot.
So I worry that I am over-scheduling him, that his childhood will be too busy to really be childhood. I worry that he does not have enough time to just play. We spent most of last Sunday building a truly massive Lego structure as a base so that Lego Batman could defend himself against the Power Rangers Zords. It was intricate and he had a fully developed story for the lead up to the battle. He had a plan and we made it happen. I haven’t taken the time to just play for hours with him in way too long. I am often with him, shuttling him here and there and everywhere, and we do have great car conversations as we are rushing from place to place. We are so busy at various activities that home life is suffering as well. We are out and about so much that when we are home we are just as busy, taking care of food or laundry or any of the other myriad things that always need to be done, so that he very rarely gets my undivided attention. He asked again for Lego-mania several times during a hectic weekend, so finally last night we got in an hour before bedtime. It showed me how much he craves doing something with just Mama and no distractions.
On the other hand, none of the grown-ups in his life are particularly active. We are all older than most of the parents of kids his age and much less bouncy than we used to be. In addition, we live in a little bit of a rough neighborhood. There is just enough going on that I cannot in good conscience tell him to go outside and play unsupervised as I used to do as a child. He could go into the backyard I suppose, but we never got him into the habit of it since there were hazards there as well and it is not an inspiring place to play. I have started to try to encourage that, but he has no desire to be out there by himself, so unless I am out there with him he doesn’t get outside time. The upshot is that without formalized activities, he wold not get enough physical activity. Most of those formal activities are scheduled in the evening so that parents can be off work, but they are thirty to forty-five minutes from home so that we get home only in time to eat and sleep in a rush. For me, I put him to bed, often fall asleep doing so because I am so tired, then get up to finish chores and end up going to bed too late because I got just enough of a nap to make it difficult to go to bed when I should. He isn’t getting enough sleep either, which is very worrisome, although we are improving on that front.
When I was growing up, we would spend hours wandering the neighborhood with friends, at various houses or parks. There were kids I could play with on our street or I could just hang out with my sister. I got as much social interaction as I wanted in a very natural way. On the other hand, my son is an only child and all of his friends live a town away so that social interactions must happen through either formal activities or play dates which are their own scheduling hassle. There are few children on our street and they are not let out to play either.
That old way of life has closed down at least in this area, the whole society is afraid and a parent who lets her child wander is considered dangerously negligent. I could buck that trend, with difficulty, except that I am also infected with that fear to let him out on his own. My husband is even more protective than I am. I want him to grow into a strong, independent person and I know that he has to be able to make his own mistakes in order to do so, but I don’t know how much independence to give him or when to do so. What is too much, what is too little, and what is just right at this stage in his development? Will the benefits he gets from the music or sports or anything else outweigh the cost in time? Time is so precious and childhood time more so. What is the best use of his time to help him become a well rounded, creative, independent, good person? For us, when soccer season ends, I am going to try to resist the temptation to fill that time slot with more activities and to instead prioritize those few hours at home, so that evenings can be a time that we can enjoy as a family.
How about your family? How do you balance formal activities with free play? How about social interactions, is school enough, or does your child have neighborhood friends to play with? Does your child roam free? What is “just right” for your family?