Standing in the parking lot of my daughter’s school I struck up a conversation with a woman who was obviously older than the rest of the mom’s huddled around the doorway waiting to pick their children up from school. “My son’s wife died of cancer last year”, she said, “and then he was in a car accident a few months ago…so now I am taking care of him and his son. I feel like I am taking care of everyone else right now but myself…but then I feel such guilt because I’m not doing enough for my grandson. So I’ve put him in swimming lessons and t-ball and we are thinking about soccer. But I just can’t seem to keep up. I feel like I have the opportunity to make it all right for him…even though he doesn’t have a mom and his dad isn’t doing well, I want him to have better.” Her answer for guilt is to give her grandson all the opportunities she can. Her answer to a better life is a full schedule and a variety of activities and experiences. For her, and for so many mom’s, we push down the reality that the world is hard and confusing and we bandage over it all with forced growth and a plethora of opportunities for our children, convinced that if we just help them do more then life will be better for them. Is a busy calendar actually helping a child become a stable, intelligent, successful adult? Is it okay to just let your kid be a kid…and not feel guilty about it?
To start, the bustle of activity isn’t always manifested because of the need for distractions. It is not necessarily that people want to keep their kids busy…because often times their lives outside of activities are already busy enough. Between homework, family responsibilities and normal everyday happenings there is enough going on to make a child overwhelmed. But factor in a sick parent, a financial crisis or a blended family situation and you have a recipe for anxiety. With all that already exists that we can’t control, why are we adding pressure on ourselves with things we can control? And if we aren’t just trying to give our child something to do, what are we attempting to do?
There is this unseen force that pushes moms to feel that if they don’t prepare their children for everything and give them every opportunity to succeed then they will miss out or be weaker or fall behind. Our expectations for our children are much too broad. It is unrealistic to think that a person could succeed at everything, especially to the degree of feeling confident and fluent in that area. And I would argue that to allow your child to choose the activities that they participate in based on what they feel like or what their friends are doing, is a disservice to the child, especially as they become young adults. In that scenario you are not training your child to discern what is good and helpful for their growth. A lifetime of such choices adds up to an indecisive, confused adult.
The process is like sculpting a monument. It may look like an unidentifiable mass when you begin, but as your child grows and develops you may begin to see strengths and weaknesses and interests and gifts. As time passes it becomes more evident as to what a child would be most successful in to pursue as an adult. As strengths and interests arise, then we can direct our children and guide them toward activities that will be most helpful to them.
My daughter has natural rhythm that was obvious before she could even walk. She loves making up songs and she has a wonderful knack for picking out tunes on the piano. And so my husband and I have guided her into exploring the piano and have plans for her to take lessons next year. My son however, shows more interest in building, baking and creating with his hands I give him opportunities to help me in the kitchen, guide him in forming objects out of play dough, give him measuring cups and spoons to divide beans into containers and I support his obsession with Legos. As he develops, so will his skills, and I can direct him to participate in more age and developmentally appropriate activities. Soccer and cheerleading are an option just as long as they do not begin to interfere with our ultimate focus and goals.
I have seen too many children that dabble in everything and are pulled in so many directions that they no longer have the ability to discern what is good and what is not good for them. They have lost their ability to focus and no longer have the capability to be excellent at anything because they are too busy trying to be good at everything.
Many junior high and high school students never even see their families anymore because they have been trained to fill their lives full of activities. They are running from baseball to track to choir to cheer camp. So, some of the most impressionable years are influenced most strongly, not by the loving guidance of a parent but by school teachers and coaches.
I’m not saying that participating in sports or clubs or lessons are bad. Extracurricular activities can be very good at teaching kids some very valuable skills like selflessness, sacrifice, discipline and teamwork. The problem arises when the child is no longer looked at from a spiritual perspective. Is signing my daughter up for soccer the best choice for her spiritual well-being? If she is struggling with cooperating with others or tends to be lazy and undisciplined?…then maybe a team sport would be a great framework for addressing these weaknesses. And some activities are actually helpful to discover what a child is not good at or an area in which he or she needs to work on. It is our job as a parent to discern what is best and most helpful for building the right skills and values into our child. It is not our job to keep them busy and entertained.
And why the guilt? Feeling guilty is a proper response when you have done something wrong. But have you actually done anything wrong if you aren’t keeping up with all of the other kids? If you are feeding your child, loving him, disciplining him, teaching him and encouraging him then what is there to feel guilty about? God will not hold you accountable for not signing your child up for t-ball but you will be responsible before HIM for his or her spiritual growth.
Whether I put my children in extracurricular activities or not, I must choose to stop playing the comparison game. I have to choose to intentionally treat my children differently when it comes to extracurricular activities as to ignore the need for success in all areas and to focus on what my child is actually good at and is interested in. If I choose to give my child a break and just let them be a kid, I will not fear they are falling behind and I won’t feel guilty for it. Because I’m not guilty for doing any of those things…and neither are you.