When my kids were little, I made them an offer you’d think they couldn’t refuse: the chance to take a day off. I said, “I know that school is stressful, sports can be stressful, even friends are sometimes stressful. Once in a while, you may need to take a recess day—and that’s fine!”
They never once took me up on it, but I know that just having that option in their back pocket helped to reduce their feelings of stress. Now I’m here to encourage all parents to do the same thing. Give your kids the greatest possible gift: permission to do nothing.
It’s no secret that kids in the 21st century are leading chronically busy lives. Between school, homework, soccer practice, music lessons, tutoring, science-fair projects, and community-service activities, kids can hardly draw an unscheduled breath. There are plenty of good reasons to do these things (although “It will look good on their resume” may be my least-favorite reason). But all of this activity can take a physical and psychological toll on kids, who end up feeling like a hamster on a wheel—and that’s a serious concern.
I don’t have a one-size-fits-all prescription for how many activities a child should be participating in; all kids are different, of course, and one may be perfectly happy tackling six or eight activities while another child feels overwhelmed with two. But parents can and should take stock of what’s going on with their child.
The Symptoms: An over-scheduled child may seem extra tired, and have a harder time getting out of bed in the morning—or have trouble sleeping when he gets into bed at night. She may feel anxious, or complain of headaches or stomachaches. They might be grumpy or irritable. Their grades may be dropping. Any of these signs means that it’s time to sit down and talk with your child about his or her work- and activity load. She may simply have too much on her plate, and feel pressure to do well in all areas. That’s a heavy burden for a child to carry.
The Roots: Whose idea was it, exactly, for your child to get involved in each of these activities? Did your child come running to you begging to be allowed to play sports and join Boy or Girl Scouts and take music or dance lessons? Or was it Mom or Dad’s belief that this would be “good for” the child—or, yikes, was it a chance for Mom or Dad to live the life they never got to live? If you go to pick your child up from an activity and he has to drag himself into the car and answers your questions with monosyllables—maybe this isn’t the right activity for him! My belief is that if a child is clearly miserable, it’s not doing her any favors to keep her in an activity one more day. Focus on a smaller number of activities for which your child demonstrates genuine enthusiasm and dedication. And try to find a balance between physical, mental, and arts activities, so that the demands on your child aren’t too lopsided.
The Plan: Build in “Do-Nothing Time”—and I do mean build it in. Each day, carve out a block of time in which your kids can simply relax and have unsupervised play. Here’s the catch: “Do nothing” does not mean schlepping the kids with you to the grocery store or the bank. And it doesn’t mean letting the kids sit in front of the TV or their electronic devices. They should enjoy unsupervised play, when their imaginations can let go. Reading, playing outside, games, relaxing—it’s a time when kids can just relax.
The Model: That’s you. As always, you should be modeling the behavior you want to see in your child. If you interrupt dinner time because “I just have to take this work call,” if you’re on your device while the kids are playing at the park, or if you’re spending every weekend at the office…think about the message you’re sending your kids. Of course, anyone can have an emergency situation that requires attention—but look hard at the recurring patterns in your life, and think about how to redesign them so that family and child time come first.
Remember that old line about how “quality time” is the most important thing? Well, guess what? Quantity matters, too! Whether you’re seeing too many activities or too little chill time, pay attention to the quantity of quality time in your family’s life. And don’t forget the enriching value of doing nothing.
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.