September-Hurried Families
by Dr. Tina Rochford
Family Matters, Vernon Morning Star

September...the leaves are turning colour, the morning grass is damp and the night air is crisp. The warm lazy days of summer are a fading memory. For most families, the major adjustment is the children returning to school. Alarm clocks are set, lunches made, backpacks packed and the daily schedule begins. September also marks the return to after school activities for children. With so many opportunities in our community-ranging from ballet and gymnastics to musical instruction to hockey and swimming, how do families choose which activities, if any, and how many activities are appropriate for their children? While we all want our children to have balanced lives and to maximize their unique talents and gifts, it is important to remember that the primary work of childhood is still play. I am reminded of the story of the four year old girl who was so over-scheduled with activities that one day she simply sat down on the ice in the middle of her skating lesson and refused to move. This behaviour was a powerful way of communicating that she was tired, stressed and needed some time to "do nothing" or be a child.

As you are considering planning structured activities for your child, here are some guidelines you may find useful:

  1. Family budget-activities can become expensive, particularly if they involve musical instruments, sports equipment, travel to various meets, etc. Multiply these costs if you have several children and realistically determine what your family can comfortably afford.

  2. Your child's interests and talents-allow your child to select which activities seem fun and interesting. Try not to influence your child too much and be aware of any efforts to live vicariously through your children. If you have always regretted giving up piano in grade four, don't push a disinterested child into piano lessons. Also check the community for less common activities, such as training for biathlon, studying astronomy, etc.

  3. Your child's energy level and general health and school achievement. While some children thrive on a busy schedule of activities, other children are exhausted by the demands of school and come home tired, hungry and in need of some quiet time.

    Also, if your child is needing extra help with academic work, it is important to assess if your child can cope with the additional demands of a multitude of after school activities.

  4. Family structure and values-it is also key to consider the needs of the entire family, particularly when there are a number of children. As children are typically driven to activities, other siblings must also make the trip. The result can be missed naps, irregular mealtimes and cranky younger siblings who spend too much time getting in and out of car seats. Perhaps the child is question has the energy and interest to be on the go every night of the week, but can the rest of the family cope with this level of activity? In addition, consider your own family values around such things as time at home as a family, shared family meals, etc. and determine if your child's activities fit with your beliefs about family life.

  5. Investigate the quality of the program and instructors in an activity under consideration. Do the instructors have good rapport with children? Are the staff trained in the unique instructional needs of children? Does the program have a good reputation? Are proper safety measures in place? Is any equipment in good repair? Is there a refund policy if you and your child decide to withdraw?

  6. Visit the program, with your child, in the preceding term, if possible and observe for a session. This personal observation will help determine some of the answers to the questions posed above.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, is your child having fun?

There is little to be gained (and possibly much to lose) in forcing children into activities for which they have no interest or are simply too young. Think of the adults who never learned to swim and often relate frightening stories of mandatory lessons at an age when they were perhaps still uncomfortable in the water. A child-centered approach, where children choose their own activities, within the firm guidelines set by parents, seems a more positive approach.

In closing, in this world of busy families and hectic schedules, what children need most is free time; to play by themselves, play with others or just be with their parents. Childhood is a very special time and is all too brief- perhaps recognizing this need to just "be" is the greatest gift that we can give our children.

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