By Dr Natalie Cheatle and Dr Annika Clark at The Parent Space
Experienced Clinical Psychologists offering practical and effective parenting skills. www.theparentspace.co.uk
The opportunities available to children today in terms of extra-curricular activities have grown enormously in recent years. Where we once had to wait until age 7 just to join our local brownies or scouts, we now have music classes for babies, French for toddlers and even circus skills for under 5’s, all within striking distance. Understandably, this often leaves parents worrying about how to squeeze even more into their already hectic days in order not to feel that their children miss out socially, developmentally and often academically too.
Additionally, there has been a great deal in the media in recent years about the contrast between today’s “overparenting” (for example, parents getting involved in every altercation a child has with his peers) and the “benign neglect” more typical of 70’s parenting where it was not uncommon to allow children to roam about free from supervision for an entire day. Parents are beginning to realise that maybe neither approach is particularly appealing and that somewhere a balance needs to be struck. Similarly with regard to extra curricular activities, if we continue to see not providing our children with every opportunity under the sun as “failing”, then we are likely to drive ourselves and our children mad with exhaustion, not to mention the impact and pressure of the additional financial costs.
So how do we think about where the balance lies? In the first instance, it can be helpful to reflect a little and check out your motives when signing up for another class. Are you looking to give your child the opportunity to find something they might really love? Are they keen to try something new or continue something they already enjoy? If they are given the opportunity to progress to an elite class or squad in an existing activity, are they themselves committed to the idea? If the answer to these questions is yes, then that’s clearly a great start.
Next, think about the impact the additional activities have on social and family life. This could fall into a number of areas:
- Accompanying siblings on activities is usually part and parcel of life for many children. However, if it becomes extreme and siblings are being dragged around to further the progression of one child in an unequal way, you are likely to be storing up resentment in some way.
- If family time, especially meal times, are frequently being compromised because of activities, then the balance again may have been tipped.
- When children become too busy for playdates, this too is a sign that things may have reached excessive levels, as free-play social opportunities are essential for healthy development.
- When activities impact on your child getting sufficient sleep, again, things need rethinking. For sleep guidelines please see: http://theparentspace.co.uk/BlogDetails/Sleep-blog.
- Children also have limited concentration spans: if homework needs to be done after a full school day, then certain activities, particularly those involving concentration such as academic or music tuition, may be a step too far for many children and if they are really necessary, should perhaps be better done at weekends.
- In the end, as a general rule, no activity is worth more than family time, playdates or sleep.
However, there are sometimes other parental motives, often harder to admit to, to watch out for. Taking up activities primarily because they might help get your child into a prestigious school needs to be thought about very carefully. Having a vested interest in your child “achieving” puts pressure on children regardless of how well parents think they hide it. Focussing on grades, levels or awards rather than just enjoyment, quickly makes it clear to children that progression is a necessary aspect of the “fun” they thought they were supposed to be having. It also teaches children that their worth is dependent in some way on being better at things than they are. It’s crucial that children know that we value them regardless of whether they come top in maths, play violin beautifully or win on sports day.
Allowing children to take part in activities they don’t necessarily excel at gives the clear message that it’s good to do things for the pure fun of it. People often talk of the sheer pleasure of pursuing activities as adults once the pressure of teams, accolades and achievement are no longer there. Why not allow your child this pleasure earlier in life?
It is also often forgotten that free-time and specifically boredom, actually promote creativity. A reasonable amount of loafing around time, with nothing much planned for an entire day for example, can challenge children to find interesting ways to occupy themselves.
Ultimately, where the exact scheduling balance lies will depend on your child’s particular interests and temperament. Some children want to have a go at anything (but maybe only for a nanosecond) while others are resistant and might only want to try things their friends are doing. Some seem to have the energy to do endless activities while others don’t want to do anything at all. Some children will need to be reigned in to sensible limits while others may need encouragement to leave their comfort zones just a little bit if you think they will ultimately enjoy an activity.
Some helpful guidelines to bear in mind might be:
- Letting children know that if they sign up for something they have to finish the term before dropping it. This can be particularly useful for overzealous children.
- Finding a “taster” session before committing can be helpful for more reluctant children.
- Ensure your child still has time for social opportunities such as playdates, completely free time to do their own thing and plenty of communal family time.
- Remaining child-led in this way will ultimately be your best guide because if an activity feels more important to you than it feels to your child, it’s probably not worth it.