Note: On rereading this post, I feel it is too gruff and glum. I will revise it soon, but am leaving it up in the meantime.
The fear fad of our time is Missing Out. Fear that we will miss an experience or an opportunity. Fear that our children will not gain some useful skill, or a dozen. Fear that they will fall behind and never catch up with that success-focused mass of kids out for their spot on the roster, their slot in the college freshman class, and oh their future happiness.
This fear prompts many families to load up on lessons, camps, sports, clubs, etc. until schedules bulge and all the margins are filled. Excessive activity chokes out the playtime that is so essential to childhood development and drains the energy from kids and parents. A common chain reaction follows. Exhausted by busyness, many binge near nightly on screens- television, social media scrolling, gaming and web surfing. Many adults and youth alike have developed a dependence on media as a means of rest. Media may temporarily alleviate stress; but its fast-paced bombarding manner more so adds another layer to the stress. Both over-activity and overuse of technology distract parents and children from relationships and detract from the human experience.
May I suggest that our children’s future happiness is more greatly hindered by a glut of activities than by that feared dearth of them? Many of these activities are good, but too many good activities is detrimental.
The echochamber of internet conversation is uncovering the trending increase in family’s activity and the unremitting stress it induces. I don’t want to simply add to the chatter. I write to say this: I am convinced that my decision to not enroll my children in an overabundance of extracurriculars or to lead them down the path to screen addiction will give them a leg up in life rather than cripple them. In 21st century America, where:
- imagination is muffled by busyness (Sarah Clarkson)
- creativity is atrophied by television and gaming
- addiction to technology and entertainment pervades (Neil Postman)
- real life communication is degraded by social media and obsessive texting (Sherry Turkle)
- rest is undervalued and misemployed
- external pressure is a chief motivator
- children learn to cope with stress early
- spare time to play and wonder wanes
- vocabulary and attention spans continue to shrink (Andrew Pudewa)
- hours spent inside drastically exceed hours being refreshed outside (Richard Louv)
- math is king, outweighing art and literature and micro-science overrules timeless naturalism (Richard Louv)
- humans are objectified in nearly every medium
- boredom is not to be borne
- and bookstores are closing their books,
Too many kids are not sufficiently laying a foundation for personal growth. When families regularly choose media over back porch chats or sunset walks, we numb kids’ senses and innate love of beauty. When we protect them from boredom, we steal the best catalyst for their creativity. When we allow our relationships with our equally busy-tired-distracted kids to suffer, we effectively stunt their relationship development skills. Many children are not learning lifelong habits that 1) the human heart thrives on 2) a healthy society needs from its individuals, and 3) the best kind of success blooms out of. Children free from stifling bounds don’t just have more fun (and calmer parents), they will someday outshine their overextended, habitually distracted, less imaginative peers in their endeavors.
Let me pause to say that my highest goal in granting my children ample unstructured time is not for them to get ahead in the world. That mindset is, however, the position from which I write here because it is a core driver for many busy parents. To learn about our parenting goals, read my posts about play and books and nature.
As I was saying, I expect that someday there will be a high demand for minds and skills that can only develop through a childhood free of inherited fear and the habits of busyness, stress and distraction that come with it. Employers already struggle to find “well-rounded” individuals who can concentrate, communicate and create competitively. Moreover, culture will hunger for the richness of art, music, stories, design and more whose development is birthed in delightful, pivotal, fleeting childhood. The best skills grow best in kids who:
- have time to wonder and wander and tinker and discover and draw and dream and think
- frequently engage in real, deep, honest conversations face-to-face (rather than texting or merely being entertained side-by-side) and thus gain fuller relationships, broader comfort zones, and the ability to empathize
- aren’t pulled by the reins into schedules over-packed with lesser activities
- preserve their imagination and curiosity by playing and exploring often
- use free time for creating and story-telling and idea-generating
- earn the powers of observation and concentration from hours spent watching nature and reading poetry and excellent books
- are read aloud to, even in adolescence (Read Aloud Revival Podcast)
- run and bike and wrestle
- dig and climb and build forts
- learn basic biology and physics and astronomy from firsthand observation rather than textbook paragraphs
- don’t blindly follow institutions into math and science-heavy days short on beauty
- are acquainted with literature and the arts and thereby gain a wider deeper knowledge of the world and understanding of the human spirit
- carefully choose very few extracurricular activities which line up with their talents and passions, then use their bountiful time to hone their skills to last a lifetime.
Now, I have a two clarifications to make.
1) Clearly, many skills are best acquired sitting under an experienced instructor. And swim lessons save lives. So, of course, a child should take lessons in piano or ballet or pottery or play a beloved sport or join a hiking club if it really fascinates him! The key word in that statement is or. All options should go through a fine sieve before being added to the schedule. And after the sifting is done, very few activities should remain. Remember, we are not just protecting our active hours, we are protecting our resting ones too. The tipping point for how few activities to pursue is up to each family. For us, it is one activity at a time per child (aside from church attendance) with occasional breaks in which no one enrolls in anything.
2) Since boredom can drive kids into media warp just as easily as busyness can, don’t just be picky regarding what they do outside the home, be picky about what they do within it. Nowadays, limiting screen time (to 3 hours a week) may sound cruel, but it is not. It may be one of the greatest favors you ever do your child. View boredom not as a plague or an excuse to entertain kids, but as a catalyst for creativity. The opposite of “activities” is not laziness. From the soil of boredom grow ideas, discoveries, inventions, masterpieces, daydreams, stories, wisdom and faith. I have learned from experience to “Let them be bored.” In seasons of motherhood (i.e. before and after a new baby), my children have watched movies often. I noticed that mornings in these phases, the kids woke up thinking about what to watch. In our normal morning mode, however, they wake up thinking about what to build or what to draw or what to read or what to talk about or where to dig. Their creativity is alive and growing when I do not drown it in shows or tablet games.
When we fill our schedules to the brim we are tempted to give our fringe hours to vegging out with screens. How much better to scale back on both the busyness and the entertainment to do the things we really love and to really know the children so briefly placed under our influence? Read together and talk long with undivided attention, play and explore and create, enjoy. These years are fleeting and pivotal. They can be delightful too if we choose to simply delight in them.
Ad campaigns like these by Nature Valley and Gillette are all-too-revealing. The emotion stirred in the interviewees and in most viewers shows that the issue is real and needs fixing.