by Jessica Goudeau, co-founder
Jonathan and I stood around at the pool with some friends a few nights ago as we enjoyed the last warm days before fall sets in. The kids had just gone back to school and we were talking through the things we signed them up for during the semester. We had kids in a variety of activities— soccer and dance, band and choir—but all of the parents had one thing in common. We were navigating the tension that so many parents face: Are we doing enough to help our kids develop their passions and gain the skills they need to succeed in their lives? And, on the flip side, are we doing too much? Are we pushing them too hard and wearing them out? Are we overscheduling their lives?
On the way home from the pool, Jonathan and I talked through the choices we were making for our own girls this fall and the rules we’ve set in place about what they can do and what’s too much for us. Some years, the balance has felt perfect and other times, we know things have gone way too far.
Here are some of the things we try to do to make sure our girls are at the right level of activity for us. This isn’t to say we’re always doing this right, but as our girls get older, we’ve learned some things that have helped us decide how to help them manage their activities, schedules, interest and passions.
1) We know our kids well. The most important thing for us is to make sure we’re meeting the needs of each of our kids. One of them needed to focus on school last year, so that’s what she did—no after school activities to distract or overwhelm her. It was absolutely the right decision. One of them loves to be busy and has a mind that is always seeking new things—signing her up for intense physical activities was great because it turned that energy into something positive. We evaluate every year where we are and what each of the kids is interested in and give them the freedom to pursue new passions—when one of our girls got into the school play, we celebrated with her that deciding not to do one activity gave her space to discover talent in a new area!
2) We know our family and what works for us. We have so many friends who love nothing more than loading up the car and spending the day at the soccer field, picnicking and chatting with friends. We understand that but it’s definitely not our family’s love language. At the same time, not everyone we know loves to leave for a day trip to go to a nearby town for some vintage thrifting, but it’s one of our family’s favorite things. Our whole family does best when we’re not too busy, so we limit our girls to two activities apiece (one musical, one physical) and have family dinners at least four nights a week. We’ve found that when we’re shuffling back and forth between different rehearsals or practices, we lose each other, forget to sign papers, can’t finish the laundry, and can never find matching socks. We also miss important emotional moments with our girls; since one of our kids is still working through a difficult and wonderful attachment journey, that’s pretty important to us. These standards might change as our girls get older, as they can drive themselves, or as our family shifts. It’s not to say this is the right way to do it, but it’s the way that works for us. I think what matters most is that Jonathan and I talk as partners and we talk to our kids frequently and evaluate where we are. When things get to be too much, then we figure out what we need to do to scale it back: have more outside time with friends, spend the afternoon reading in bed, or host a family movie marathon. We also both work and we can't always afford every camp they want to go to; we're realistic with our kids about our limitations both in terms of time and money. Knowing our family dynamics helps us make good decisions about how much time we’re spending on any activity.
3) We don’t want our kids to major in anything in elementary or middle school. It’s one of the most exciting things about being a parent—getting to see that moment when our kids realize they might be good at something. We want our kids to try new things, to have lots of opportunities to paint a picture or kick a ball or code a game. If they major too early, it puts too much pressure on them. In the college classroom, I’ve listened to so many young adults say, “But I’ve always wanted to…” As we talk, it becomes clear that their parents took their early interest in medicine or basketball and turned it into a lifelong dream for their kids. When the kids get to college and realize they’re actually terrible at math or don’t really like playing basketball any more, they feel a crushing sense that they’re failing at this passion they’ve always had. My experience with college students has made us as parents want to give our kids many opportunities and NEVER push them toward something just because we want them to do it (or because we always wanted to do that ourselves!).
4) We also want our kids to understand commitment and develop endurance. At the same time, kids can be flaky. One day they like something, the next day they don’t. We tell our girls at the beginning of any activity that we are sticking with it for an entire season. If, in four months, they want to quit, they can, but we will see it through. Our commitment to commitment has had some surprising rewards—that time our kid who was ambivalent about soccer made a goal and realized she’s not only at it, she really likes it was a great day. At the same time, we’ve had activities that didn’t connect with our kids and that’s fine. We gave it some time and they learned a few things and then moved on. We hope to teach them that we don’t quit just because things are hard.
5) We don’t want our kids so focused on themselves and their activities that they can’t engage with their community or develop diverse friendships. We don’t want our kids gone every night. We want them hanging out with friends. We want them to know what’s going on in the world, at least at an age-appropriate level. There are kids all over the world who would love to have access to the kinds of activities our kids sometimes complain about. It matters to us as a family that our kids don’t become so focused on their own skills and interests and lose sight of other. Connection with people around us is one of our family’s core values and one we keep at the forefront when we decide how to spend our time.
6) At the end of the day, we want them to develop lifelong habits that will help them no matter what they end up doing. Our daughter’s sixth-grade coach told parents at back-to-school night that his goal was to help kids remember that moving their bodies can be healthy and fun. We loved that—so often, the parents around us seem to be focused on turning out the next soccer star or ballet diva. Our kids are talented at a lot of things and maybe one of those things will turn into a lifelong career, but in all probability, they’ll run for health and not because they’re in the Olympics. We want them moving their bodies, enjoying reading, liking music, learning to work in a team, having fun with friends. Those skills are the ones we hope they perfect in every activity. Those are the things that will give them a good, happy life no matter what they end up doing or being.
Ultimately, what’s most important for us is that we are paying attention to our level of busy-ness and being intentional with our kids. If our family is healthy, our kids will thrive, and that’s what matters most!
What works for your family? How do you navigate this tension with your kids' activities?