Family balance is important

I’m happy to share some thoughts on how my family has adjusted to the myriad of activities and opportunities for our kids. First, though, I want to point out that I believe every family is different and there are no right or wrong answers. I can’t recall ever hearing a magical number of activities that are recommended or required for kids. I think we can all agree that the number of options for activities has exploded.

This is really going to age me by saying this, but back when I was a kid in Lutheran elementary school, it seemed my athletic options were basketball and softball. I also played baseball in a community little league. The only other activity or group option that I can recall was Lutheran Pioneers or Buckaroos. Furthermore, I rarely remember having practices for my teams in grade school. I’m sure we had some, but I really don’t think they were three nights a week.

Now we could fill this page with nothing but structured activity options through school, church, the community, summer sports camps, etc. Our temptation as parents, and on the part of our kids, is to be involved in more than we can handle. Perhaps there is even a bit of worry as parents that if my children are not taking advantage of the plethora of activities that other families are, maybe my kids won’t grow up as well-rounded adults.

Good friends just signed their son up for the community lacrosse team. Now that sounds fun! I didn’t even know that opportunity existed. Should I mention that to my son?

With no easy answers, how do we make decisions on the activities? To be honest, my wife’s and my efforts usually fall on trying to limit participation rather than seeing our kids overinvolved in too much. Here are a couple priorities we try to keep in mind.

Priority #1: Love
Probably the most important thing we have tried to do is make it clear to our kids that their participation and success in any activity is not something they need to do to get our love. God’s love for us through his son was unconditional. We don’t need to perform—or be the best—in order to receive God’s love. What we do as Christians is simply a demonstration of our love for God. So in that light of Christian joy and freedom, priority #1 is that the activity the kids choose can be seen as just another way to show love for God and not a way to win mom and dad’s approval. That comes free!

Priority #2: Balance
This can get tricky. As adults it seems balance in life can be hard to find, and our own activities and responsibilities feel overwhelming at times. I guess if our kids watch us closely and learn from us, are we teaching them to live a balanced life or a life filled with stress and anxiety as we move hastily from one thing to the next, getting short and angry with one another because we always feel late and behind?

I think family balance is important. People tell us that these times when the kids are young will go by fast. I definitely agree! Our family needs time. We need time to simply be together, go for a bike ride, watch a movie, and even do some chores together (or maybe I wish we’d do more chores together!). This is time to just be with one another and nurture our relationships. It’s the time needed to teach and show them God’s love. If the outside activities infringe on the family connectedness, then it’s time for us to pull back.

Looking back in my life, with comparatively few activity options, what did I do with all my time? I wasn’t bored. I have great memories of participating in unstructured activities with friends and family. I’m certainly not calling for us to bring back “the good ‘ole days.” I think all the varied activities offered are amazing now, but developing a few simple priorities has helped our family maintain balance.

How busy should kids be?

We parents of a certain age have the same conversation about 12 times a summer: “Remember when we were kids? Our moms pushed us out the door after breakfast, and we didn’t come back in until the streetlights came on.”

You can hear us rehearsing this back-in-the-day shtick while sitting at our seventh soccer game of the week, trying to figure out who can take the boys to swimming tomorrow so we can get the girls to dance. Childhood is just different now. Parent-scheduled. Parent-coached. Parent-spectated.

I’m writing this mid-June, in the interlude between my stepson’s morning baseball practice and afternoon basketball camp. He’ll just have time to eat lunch, play 10 minutes of piano, change from cleat to court shoe, and leave a quarter-cup of the baseball diamond on the carpet before we head to the gym. After basketball, he’ll eat dinner in the car as we drive an hour to a baseball game—one of his three leagues this summer.

As you’re reading this, school is starting, and I bet your schedule’s even crazier. Choir. Band. Math team. Forensics. Soccer. Oh, yeah—and school.

Having only one child to transport at the moment, I shake my head in wonder at the family of eight. Many questions come to mind, all of them variations of, “Is this crazy?”

Story: This summer I asked why Billy Schmidt wasn’t playing baseball. Someone explained that the Schmidts went camping on weekends. I’m ashamed to admit that while my mouth said, “Oh, that’s nice,” my mind said, “But Billy’s such a great hitter!”

Another story: Years ago, a dad brought his daughter to her first flute lesson with me. He said, “She probably won’t practice much, but that’s fine with us.”

I concentrated on keeping my eyebrows in place. What? They’ll pay for lessons and a fine musical instrument, but they don’t care whether she practices? What about self-discipline? Commitment? Stewardship of God’s gifts?

Years later I think those parents were onto something.

How busy should kids be? Depends on your view of childhood. Which of these sound right to you?

  • Kids should dip their toes into many activities—from music to drama to sports to chess.
  • Kids should choose just a few activities and fully commit to them.
  • Kids should be busy and challenged.
  • Kids should just have fun.

And more specifically about each of your kids:

  • This kid needs reining in, because she’ll sign up for everything and then whine all year.
  • This kid needs a nudge because he’ll play Xbox all day if left to his own devices (no pun intended).
  • This kid’s a dabbler, not a committer, and that’s wrong. (Or is it?)
  • This kid only likes the social aspect of teams, which makes sports a waste of time and money. (Or does it?)
  • This kid would do nothing but read, so we need to get her out more. (Or do we?)

Maybe the ultimate question is this: What’s our goal—raising healthy, successful 12-year-olds or healthy, successful 35-year-olds? And how does our answer to that question change our perspective on today’s baseball game or piano recital?

What if we asked the kids? Maybe on that hour-long trip to the game, we could have a discussion—one where we don’t give our opinions at all; we just listen to theirs.

  1. What’s your favorite team or club? What do you like about it?
  2. What’s your least favorite? What do you dislike about it?
  3. Are you doing any of these activities because you think other people want you to do them—your friends, teachers, or parents?
  4. Do we support you enough—driving, watching, cheering, encouraging you, etc.?
  5. Do we ever embarrass you at an event? How?
  6. Do we ever pressure you too much? How?
  7. If you could make one change to your schedule of activities, what would it be?

Our kids are pretty insightful. Their answers might surprise us.

Truth is, I don’t know what’s right for your family. I seldom know what’s right for mine, so I’m not going to judge you.

Maybe the important thing is, whatever we decide, we do so consciously. We don’t thoughtlessly sign every form that comes home in the backpack. And we don’t project our own childhood fantasies onto our kids—not to mention our dreams for their Division I scholarships or the New York Philharmonic.

I’d like to say more, but it’s time for basketball camp. And that quarter-cup of baseball diamond on the carpet won’t vacuum itself.

Diving into extracurriculars

19 ½ years! That’s how long my husband and I have been cajoling children into bathing suits; checking for towels and goggles; sitting in hot, heavily chlorinated poolside bleacher seats; or jumping in with the kids on frigid winter Saturday mornings. Six levels of Red Cross lessons times four kids (plus a couple of repeats) equals lots of hours and some good swimmers. I’m glad we made the effort to ensure our kids are safe and strong in the water, but whose idea was lessons for the six-month old?

The list of children’s activities offered to families these days is long and varied. Your kids can get after-school Spanish, chess, or STEM classes; become karate black belts or hockey goalies; master the trapeze. There are church youth groups, children’s choirs, band or piano lessons, library story times, 4H clubs. You want your children to be well-rounded and to experience it all. How to choose? What’s too little? What’s too much?

I cannot claim to be an expert on the subject of children’s activities—I often err on the side of over-involvement. (Yes, I was to blame for the infant swim lessons!) However, my husband and I have learned a little in these 19 ½ years poolside.

First, consider the options carefully and prayerfully. Is this something valuable to your child? Will it offer long-term physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual good? Choices will have to be made. A certain number of activities may be beneficial for your child, but too many may place undue stress on the child, the parents, the entire family.

Then there’s the stewardship question. Consider the time and money spent in the activity. How will your child’s participation affect their ability to complete homework, have some pure down-time, get enough rest? How will your child’s participation in this activity affect the entire family? (Will nightly 6 p.m. basketball destroy any chance of family dinner time?) If you have multiple children, think about this: Is this activity one you’ll expect each child to complete? What kind of time and money commitment is this in the long run? (19 ½ years is a long time and yes, you can say that you tried the baby swimming lessons with the oldest and it was too much, so no one else has to do it, but that excuse only works a couple of times before cries of “Unfair!” are heard.)

It’s easy to get caught up in the plethora of options for kids. When your child is young, observe him or her carefully and explore a number of different activities to determine where your children’s interests and talents lie. As they grow older, you can narrow things down and decide how many extras are manageable—one special activity per child per quarter, for instance. Take time to consider levels of activity, too—traveling sports versus school teams can make a big difference in family time and budgets. Some have found school athletics are more than enough for their child; some play one sport year round and have college scholarships to show for it. Another word of advice: make sure your own ego doesn’t get involved in the decision. “I always wanted to take ballet as a child!” may not be a good reason to sign everyone up at the nearest studio. (On the other hand, it might be!) Talk and really listen to your child about what he or she feels might be interesting and fun. Watch carefully for signs that you are overdoing it.

As we send our oldest off to his second year of college, I’m amazed at the speediness of these last 20 years! In retrospect, taking time to consider the areas in which you’d like your children to be enriched and aware—volunteer service, a part-time job, athletics, music, art, science, or public speaking, just to name a few—are things you and your child should carefully discuss and pray over. Most importantly, make sure there is time enough for the one thing needful—daily visits with God’s Word, weekly worship within a Christian congregation. If any activity gets in the way of your family’s spiritual growth, it is too much.

God’s blessings as you dive into the pool of extracurriculars! Enjoy this active time—in moderation.

Ann M. Ponath and her husband, David, and their four children, ages 20-11, may be found poolside, courtside, fieldside, concertside, or napping in Stillwater, Minn. They are members of Christ, North St. Paul/Hugo.