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Downtime - Making Room for Nothing

Do you need to scale back for balance? Most parents have times where they feel like they have to be in multiple places at one time to manage their children’s calendars. But what happens when the imagined need becomes real?

Like a typical mom’s, Hillary Homzie’s schedule for her family was a house of cards, a careful stacking of one activity on top of the other. Then one day, it came toppling down; a change in plans with a carpool partner when all three of her kids had somewhere to be left her scrambling. “I remember dropping off one kid at a swim party and not even being able to have the time to arrange how my fifth-grader got home,” she explains. She herself had to get to a doctor’s appointment where she was diagnosed with multiple ailments, brought on by stress. It was then she realized something had to change.

Homzie’s story may sound extreme, but it’s more normal than many realize. According to a research study conducted at the University of Michigan, children experienced a major increase in time spent in structured sports (doubled) between 1981 and 1997. And those numbers continue to rise. Add in a variety of other extracurricular activities available, and you have a recipe for collapse.

Scaling back for balance – The solution to the craziness? Scale back. Start by searching for ways to leave empty slots on your calendar. Then continue until you’ve reached an equilibrium that satisfies your family.

This may sound like a risky proposition. After all, we’re encouraged to provide our kids with opportunities to learn and grow. Dr. Wendy Grolnick, a Professor of Psychology and author of Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids, says “parents feel a lot of pressure to have their children get involved in a lot of activities. There’s the ramped-up competition. The feeling that they have to be in sports before they’re five to get in college.” But can there be too much? “After-school activities are wonderful. Research shows kids gain an advantage - they do better in school. Really it’s about finding a balance,” Dr. Grolnick notes.

Anastasia Gavalas, a mother of five, realized this early on before her children reached Kindergarten. She determined to choose balance from the get-go. Gavalas says she asked herself, ‘How can I structure my life so it supports what I believe in my heart?’ The answer came in a move from a busy Long Island suburb to the laid-back lifestyle of The Hamptons. “I recognized that the competitiveness is not what life is all about. Parents are so fear-based. We think if we don’t give our kids every experience, they will miss out or fall behind.”

Homzie’s solution to her crazy schedule was to limit her children’s activities. “I just decided that each kid could only do two activities. That’s it. So even if they loved something, they had to drop it. I had my kids rank their activities.” Her middle child’s schedule was reduced the most, from six different activities - most of them two and three times weekly - to two activities. Instead, he found ways to enjoy things like tennis in a casual setting, rather than competitively.

Talk it out – How can you go about freeing up time in your child’s life? Dr. Grolnick advocates talking it out. “I think sitting down together with your kids [depending on their age] and picking the activity they love the most. Negotiate how many times a week.”

Take the time to listen and understand why your children want to do the things they do. See if they can find the enjoyment of some scheduled activities through a more unstructured means. Offer to join them. Homzie’s former tennis-playing son now finds time on the court with his dad or a friend. According to Dr. Grolnick, the amount of sustainable activity will vary by child and family. It’s not about a set number of activities; rather, it’s about the issue of balance. “Some families are in a bunch of activities and are thriving,” she explains.

And as Gavalas learned, a balanced life is an intentional life. Evaluate your priorities. Probe to find your children’s priorities. Then organize your calendar around those. “Taking stock and evaluating after a season is better than signing up wildly. Parents can talk about realistically what the kids can do,” says Gavalas.

Enjoy the downtime – The results are priceless. Homzie noticed the change in her highly active middle son. “Now he’s seeing the light and is talking about the need to have downtime. He’s no longer asking me if he can do fencing or whatever sport is next on his list.”

Gavalas’s family is also enjoying the quieter lifestyle. Her eldest daughter volunteers at a horse farm. Her second daughter attends a dance class twice a week. And her sons play two sports each. They have more time for playing and being outside.

Which can be unusual these days. According to the University of Michigan study, children’s time spent in unstructured outdoor activities, such as walking, hiking or camping, fell by 50 per cent over the period of the study. Regaining this freedom is priceless.

Homzie agrees. “Our life is still busy, but there are afternoons where I can walk up to the top of the small mountain where I live, with the children, and go for an adventure walk. The children can actually jump on our trampoline and swing on the swings – in their own back yard!”

Where many people see a slower schedule as a loss of opportunity, Dr. Grolnick notes that it can actually open doorways to opportunity. “Kids will find their passion if they have the space,” says Dr. Grolnick. “If they’re too scheduled, they don’t have the space to find what will hook them. If you have to push them to do these things, they don’t feel good about, it’s counterproductive. If you give them space, they will gravitate toward something."

Ultimately, leaving empty spots on the calendar is about giving kids that space. Space to be a kid. Space to play. And space for discovery.

6 signs your child’s schedule is too full
Advice provided by Dr. Wendy Grolnick

If you see more than two or three of these signs – and they’re not related to a physical illness – you may need to take some whiteout to your calendar:

1. Your child is frequently tired.
2. You feel you’re constantly saying, “Let’s go!”
3. Your child experiences regular stomach aches.
4. Your child is often irritable.
5. Your child balks at going to activities.
6. You mix up who’s supposed to be where and when… more than once.

Lara is a freelance writer who is learning to balance the activities of three girls. Thankfully, they all love downtime.

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