The Nonstop Family
In our hurried culture, family happiness may be falling by the wayside.
Sarai Burris and Betty Casey
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I asked local moms, through Facebook, what stresses them the most. I wasn’t surprised to learn that most of the many responses fell into two main categories: Time and Money. And, looking at both of those areas, the women who responded were walking a tightrope, trying to balance family time, personal time, work (their own and/or their spouses’ jobs outside the home) and time for kids’ activities. The financial stress dovetailed with the time stress in that long hours at work took time away from family. Money stresses were many, including finding and paying for daycare and preschool, paying for activities, paying for the normal upkeep of a household and having enough set aside for unexpected expenses. Family life is a precarious balancing act.
As mom Jennifer Kisamore says, her biggest stressor is, “Not enough time. For us,” she writes in her Facebook post, “it’s not enough time to get household stuff done and personal time to recharge so we can be completely ‘there’ when we are spending time together.”
Many moms echoed Jennifer’s sentiments. “[Balancing] education, work, individual interests, housekeeping and family time [creates stress],” Alicia Mosier Chesser wrote. “Acknowledging that each of us has important needs, and also always keeping an eye on the needs of family as a whole.”
Dr. Judy Berry, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Tulsa, said that, in general, the biggest stressor for families right now “is that we don’t have the solution to balancing work and parenthood. We feel stressed when our output exceeds our input.”
Dr. Berry, along with Warren Jones, developed a research instrument in 1995 called the Parental Stress Scale, designed to look at stress broadly and compare to other areas.
“In general,” she said, “if you can find more satisfaction in parenthood, you can find more satisfaction in other areas of your life.”
Balance may be the ultimate goal for individual and family harmony, but finding that balance is ellusive for many families. Dr. Robert Hudson, a clinical professor of pediatrics with OU-Tulsa who specializes in parental and pediatric guidance, finds that many well-meaning families over-extend themselves, over-scheduling their children, fearing that their children will somehow miss out or be left behind.
Dr. Hudson recommends looking at your needs as a family first, then your child’s individual needs and developmental age. Families should be making decisions about how time is spent based on the family, not the child. “We’ve moved away from a child-centered society to a child-dominated society,” said Dr. Hudson.
“Age is very important [when considering activities for your child],” Dr. Hudson said. “Your expectations of your child as far as development are certainly age appropriate. Activities are age-appropriate also.”
”Our culture rewards multi-taskers,” Dr. Berry said. “Our schedule for children looks like this: work, homework, activities, playtime. Playtime is at the end of the list, and it needs to be at the top of the list.”
Dr. Hudson provided literature from five experts in the field of child development and all indicated the importance of free play in the development of preschool-aged children and the dangers of replacing it with structured activities. The American Pediatric Association released a report stating, “Free and unstructured play is essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient.”
In one of these articles, “Playtime is Over,” David Elkind, professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University, asserted that free-form play has ended and its socialization benefits lost.
He writes, “Children in past generations learned to settle their own quarrels, to make and break their own rules, and to respect the rights of others. They learned that friends could be mean as well as kind, and that life was not always fair…Now that most children no longer participate in free-form play -– play dates arranged by parents are not a substitute—their peer socialization has suffered.”
Dr. Hudson said that play groups are structured because of the parental involvement in the social interactions of the children. He offers some suggestions to promote free play in these settings.
“Let children solve their problems. When they come to you, which you’ve taught them to do, to solve the problem, you say, ‘Why don’t you see if you can work it out?’ Then the child can go back into their group to see what they can work out, then let them live with it.”
To promote free playtime, Dr. Hudson says to send your children outside to play. And, if your backyard isn’t an option? “Take them to the park. You sit on the bench and unless somebody is hurting somebody, you stay out of it. It’s not up to you to solve their problem. You say, ‘go play, I’m busy.’”
Dr. Hudson points to valid reasons to involve preschool children in activities. “If you need to take your child to daycare because you need to work, then this is a valid reason.”
And for stay-at-home moms, he says, “If you’ve got a kid that is active, activities are optional to give you a break.”
When choosing an activity, unstructured activities are better for young children. “The less structure, the better,” Dr. Hudson said. “Just don’t do it because you think it will increase their intelligence. Under 10, I’d really push individual sports.”
Between the ages of 6 and 10, Dr. Hudson suggested letting your child participate in different activities, one at a time, if your child has the ability and wants to try something.
At about age 10, if a child wants to seriously pursue a certain activity, Dr. Hudson said that the activity chosen should be up to the child, but not without personal responsibility on the child’s part.
Why is less stress, less structure and free play so important for children and families?
Too often, parents are filling some desire or emptiness in themselves rather than doing what’s best for their children. And, parents have the notion that they are responsible for making their children happy, no matter what the personal cost to the parents.
In the July/August edition of the “Atlantic” Magazine, Lori Gottlieb, a therapist and mother, wrote a compelling article called “How to Land Your Kids in Therapy: Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods.”
Gottlieb became curious when she noticed that many young adults were coming to her for therapy because they just weren’t happy. They had grown up with wonderful, involved parents and happy childhoods, yet they were riddled with anxiety, depression and general emptiness.