Last summer I noticed that nobody in my neighborhood actually mows their own lawns anymore. We don’t live in the kind of fancy neighborhood where it’s standard for landscaping companies to do all the work. But my son was regularly the only boy I ever saw pushing the mower. His friends told him that they were too busy with practices and daily doubles to worry about yardwork. I thought about this all summer. I also thought about how lovely it was to have a nice unhurried dinner every evening. And how much more cheerful my children were when they went to sleep at a decent time.
As summer wound down I simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sign up for another year of rushing my kids around. So I didn’t. I didn’t sign us up for any extra-curriculars. And I blogged about that decision here last September.
Part of our problem stems from the fact that we just have A LOT of kids. Most parents have told me that they allow each child to participate in one after-school activity. That sounds utterly sensible if you have two children. But six children makes that impossible. Good thing our kids can check off “learning to be on a team” just from living in our family.
The surprising thing about our little experiment is the reaction from other parents. Almost without exception they have been jealous. “You are so lucky,” they whisper. One woman I talked to at a party burst into tears. “That’s what I want. I‘m too tired to go running or do anything for myself. I was thinking about starting anti-depressants.” All because she feels too guilty to take her sons out of football (I know it’s Texas, but anti-depressants aren’t a good trade-off for football!)
The big question I get most often is, “Don’t your kids feel bad?” Not really. I gave them a little speech about wanting to scale back a little and there hasn’t been much discussion. I thought there would be all sorts of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, but everyone has seemed happy jumping on the trampoline, doing puzzles or playing computer games. My nine-year-old daughter has been an avid ballerina, but at the end of last year she was hating lessons. I told her we’d try a little break and if she wanted to start up again, we would. Just not right away. That has seemed reasonable to her. She has barely mentioned ballet in the last five months.
One friend has three teenage sons and was aghast at our plan to drop out of sports. “Boys need that outlet! They have to occupy their time with something physical or they’ll get into trouble!” While I do agree that boys need to keep occupied, I think some need physical activities more than others. My boys seem to get most of the exercise they need riding their bikes to school and back every day.
What I have wanted most I have gotten: to keep weeknights sacred; to make a nice dinner (OK, some nights we still order pizza but it’s not because I’m too busy) and to hang out with my kids. I want to make sure that everybody gets their homework done and gets a good night’s sleep. I want my kids learn to do chores because, call me crazy, I think that learning to mow lawns and scrub bathrooms is going to be a lot more helpful than learning to do a pirouette or make a field goal.
I don’t plan on never letting my kids do extra-curricular activities again. We will add them back in gradually. My boys were interested in wrestling recently and went to the first practice. One son hated it, the other liked it, but I explained that he could choose between wrestling now or baseball in the Spring. He chose baseball. Practices begin soon.
I have realized that I need to be more thoughtful about adding activities to my children’s schedules. When my child commits to an activity there is a cost to the entire family. Not only is my child enrolled, but I am enrolled as well. I will be sitting at lessons and games, not at home. Or I will be dragging the other children along too. There is a price the family pays and I need to remember that.
My child must have a strong desire to be enrolled in something for it to happen. Playing soccer because his friends are is not a good enough reason. And if my child hates it, I’m not going to crack the whip to continue. If it means that five years of riding lessons were for nothing, then so be it (take that, Tiger mothers!) They have their whole lives to explore their interests. You can actually take a ballet class or learn to play the guitar as a grown-up! Has the world forgotten that?
The thing I wish that I could teach parents is that they need to think about what’s best for their family in the long run. For some parents it’s taking a hiatus from everything. Some families are lucky enough to have piano teachers down the street and tennis lessons around the corner; extra-curriculars fit easily in their schedules and are not much of a drain. For some parents it’s putting themselves first. A miserable mother affects her entire family. If running around all afternoon is making you crazy, then stop. What is the worst that can happen? Your children are disappointed? (Oh no! Not that! How will they ever live without doing cheer for an entire season?)
The important thing is to be prayerful. The Lord wants you to have a happy family. He will guide you, I promise. But you also need to have the courage to do what is needed. That requires the strength you have been given as a mother.