Being busy has become somewhat of a badge of honour. So much so that for some parents, having a child who is juggling multiple activities at a time seems to be a tick in the good parenting box[i]. Tennis lessons one day, piano the next, ballet in the afternoons and swimming practice in the morning is not an unrealistic picture of some children’s schedules so just what long term effects is this constantly on lifestyle doing to our kids?
It’s a hotly contested topic and one that often ignites debate. A common stance taken by psychologists is that overloading kids with activities tends to interfere with their natural development and that often one of the best things we can do as parents is to just let kids play freely more often without everything being about a goal-oriented, adult-led activity[ii].
As a parent I know first-hand there’s an innate need to ensure that you give your child the best start in life as possible which includes giving them the chance to try different things. However, I’m also wary of the flip side, in that filling every waking moment of my boys’ lives with structured activities also robs them of the benefits of just being able to play as they wish and the lessons and growth it can often bring.
So what would happen if instead we took the ‘slow parenting’ approach and just stripped everything back to allow kids to just be in the moment?
I spoke to my friend, Tim about this and he says that his kids have tried a variety of different activities from soccer to martial arts and swimming, but knows that they need a balance. He does love the idea of just allowing his sons to free play, leaving them to come up with their own games and use their imagination and if they’re having fun to not overthink it and just leave them be. “I think that’s the best thing about being a kid…in your mind you can be anything, you can play and pretend without any fear of judgement, or a care in the world. You can just be in the moment.”
Another friend, Jan has a two-year-old son and shares the concern that most parents have with their kids around whether she’s doing enough as a parent to aid his development —something I’ve found to be a common thing from parents I’ve spoken to. While she does worry about whether she should be exposing her son to more things, at present she’s happy to simply let him have fun, and hopefully learn in the process. “Most of the time I let my son just be a kid…because he is young I just let him be and make sure that each activity is interesting [to him].”
Terezel also has a young son and admits she prefers her child to do few, if any, planned activities. “I don't think kids need to be rushing from one activity to the next,” she says. “Those that do too many of these are the ones who are disadvantaged because they can become exhausted and stressed like 'busy' little adults with responsibilities to fulfil such as practising all the skills they have been taught in their own time.” That said, she does say if her son shows interest in a particular activity she has no issue giving him the opportunity to do it but ultimately, she wants him to have the time and space to just be a kid. “Childhood is not a race. There is such a short time to enjoy just being a child.”
My friend Judie has two daughters and apart from music tuition which was incorporated within school hours and swimming lessons, she says she’s never been the kind of parent who felt the need to cram her girls’ days with extracurricular activities. As a result, she says she and her partner, “have so many happy memories of their childhood—we were able to just be with each other, in the moment, enjoying crafting, singing, drawing, writing, cooking and reading—with no stress of having to be somewhere.” But do her now high school-aged children feel like they missed out on anything by not taking part in so many things? “As they’re older now I think they appreciate our approach. Compared with some of their friends’ parents they’ve realised how lucky they were to have so much free time after school just being kids.”
While the opportunities available to children nowadays is undeniably immense, perhaps we need to revisit just how much they really need to experience at the one time. Instead of our kids ending up with a schedule that mimics our own, we can strive to find a little balance, to give them the time to simply enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime period in their lives. Parents often wish time would slow down when it comes to their kids growing up, but instead of wishing, maybe we could actually do something about it and acknowledge that there is plenty of time to be busy later on, but only a small window in which to be a kid.