For parents, January is the month when we begin planning for activities for our children for the rest of the school year and for summer. It is the time to register for classes, sports teams, and summer camps. It is also a great time to evaluate our children’s schedules, stress levels, and balance among academics, structured activities, and unscheduled time for playing and hanging out. While we’re taking a look at all of this, we should also assess the amount of screen time in which our children are engaged. This process is as important to our children’s well-beings as monitoring their academic success.
Research confirms that children growing up in the 21st century spend the majority of their time in school and structured activities and have little time to play creatively or pursue interests that are not teacher- or adult-directed. Although these activities offer much value—such as social interaction, skill building, creative outlets, and exposure to new ideas—they need to be balanced with periods of unstructured time. Many children thrive on being busy and want to participate in all that life has to offer. But as parents, we need to teach our children that having time at home, with and without friends, is equally important to their schedules. This becomes another area of limit-setting for which we often don’t take responsibility, allowing our child to be the sole decision maker.
When parents work full-time, they depend on these activities to provide child care as well as stimulation. If your child does need to be away from home all day, creating consistency in their schedule can help meet their needs for balance. For instance, instead of enrolling your children in multiple camps over the summer, find one camp they can attend the entire time, which allows them to get to know counselors and peers in a more intimate way and minimizes their need for readjustment and for learning new rules and expectations.
During the school year, a rule of thumb that can help parents and children decide on activities is to ask, “What is the purpose?” Children respond well when parents say, “We do two activities per week — one for your mind and one for your body.” This helps children narrow down their choice of physical activity, such as martial arts or a team sport, and determine whether they want to take music, art, chess, or some other intellectually stimulating class. Make sure they understand that signing up for an activity is a commitment, but use a calendar to show them when that commitment will end, and that they will have an opportunity for new choices at that time.
What is most important, finally, is that we model balance in our own lives. That means making time for quiet and creative time at home with electronics put away each week. When we find ourselves stressed, rushed, multitasking, and feeling overwhelmed on a regular basis, we are receiving a clear signal that the family needs to readjust priorities and work together to create a more meaningful and connected life.
Karen Friedland-Brown, MA, is the Director of Parents Place on the Peninsula.