Many parents have ever asked the question that how you decide which extracurricular activities their kids do. I also wodered and asked my friends. I stood with other parents in the dining room next to a table laden with ribs, carrot sticks, and kale salad. Our children ran in and out of the room, stealing chips and giggling.
I needed advice. I had recently broken one of my cardinal rules of parenting — never sign my kids up for too many activities — and was wondering how other parents handled the dilemma of opting in or out of kids’ sports and other forms of enrichment.
“If our daughter asks to do something, we sign her up,” replied one set of parents whose six-year-old did dance, soccer, ice-skating, Girl Scouts, and karate. They both worked full-time but managed the commitments together, alternating pick up and drop off.
“I want my daughters to have options, so I have them try something once,” answered a mom of two young girls. “If they don’t like it, at least they’ve given it a go, and, often I find that, after a few sessions, they enjoy themselves. Sometimes my older daughter even thanks me for signing her up!”
Our kids could go from complaining about not wanting to go lessons to expressing gratitude for making it happen, which made us all chuckle. It was a kind of parenting nirvana: that one day our kids will appreciate our efforts for them.
I live in a town where enrolling your kids in extracurricular activities, from sports to math prep to music, is the norm. As a working parent, I am stretched to find time for everything, so extracurriculars have always been a sore spot for me; as a family, we haven’t had the time to make many of the options work in our schedule. Yet, this year, after so long resisting the call to overschedule my kids, I fell prey to “it would be good for them” principle, and now our Google calendar overflowed with places my kids needed to be. I had somehow agreed for my son to simultaneously take piano and swim lessons, be a Boy Scout, play on a baseball team, and participate in track, fencing, and lacrosse clinics. Luckily, everything was on a different day of the week, but he was to going to have something to do every day. So much for free time.
Like the mom at the party, I wanted my son to have opportunities to try new things, but I had a feeling I was overdoing it. The reasons for his busy schedule were mixed: he asked for Boy Scouts and fencing; I pushed swim and piano; my husband championed baseball and lacrosse. My son’s level for enthusiasm was varied, and I was beginning to feel that my desire for him to be exposed to different activities in the hopes he’d find the one (or ones) that “clicked” might be too much.
Back at the party, I asked about stopping the overload. “How do you know when to stop an activity?” I inquired. “How do you know when it’s time to let something go?”
Another mom, with grown children, stepped into the conversation. “I always told my kids that they couldn’t let their teammates down. If they really disliked a sport, they had to see it through to the end of the session because they were part of a team. Sometimes, they changed their minds and started to like the sport. Other times, they still disliked it and we didn’t do it again. But they learned what a team was.”
Her advice made me think about soccer, a sport popular in many communities. After trying it for multiple seasons, both of my kids concluded that they didn’t like it, and didn’t want to play again. My husband and I, realizing neither one of them would likely become professional soccer players, had agreed to stop signing them up for our town’s recreation league. Our Saturday mornings were free as a result, and we had time for family bike rides, leisurely pancake breakfasts, and seeing friends. So far, declining an activity hadn’t been a problem; in fact, it had opened up us to new experiences together.
Another parent chimed in. “Sometimes, we found that the kids weren’t ready for an activity yet. Maybe they were too young for whatever it was we were thinking of signing them up for. If we had waited, they might have been more open to it.”
The mom with the grown kids spoke again. “Ultimately, you have to listen to your kid and yourself. If your kid is having fun or looks forward to practicing — whether it’s a sport or instrument — it’s a good fit. If they fight you to go to the activity, maybe it’s time to rethink their involvement.”
Heads nodded around the circle of parents. I wondered how many of us knew that advice but still fell into the trap of overextending our kids. In the long run, did it help our kids to run from activity to activity? Or, would they be better off to have more unstructured time?
For my family, the solution already seems to be to back off, to balance what we want for our kids with what’s fun for them – and doable for working parents. It’s a lesson I may have learned a bit too late for this season, but one I plan to put in place next time around.