The Nonstop Family
In our hurried culture, family happiness may be falling by the wayside.
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.
The lack of resilience in these young adults, Gottlieb said, may be the result of never experiencing frustration, disappointment or outright failure, so they were not prepared for the real life ups and downs of adulthood.
“We need to give ourselves permission to be human beings,” said Dr. Berry. “It goes back to balance. We think a ‘good’ mother would be taking her child swimming rather than going on a walk with a friend. Maybe not. Mom needs social time and exercise for renewed energy for the child.”
Finding Balance: How Do Parents Do It?
Both Dr. Hudson and Dr. Berry said that every family and every child is different and what is good for one family may not be good for another. Dr. Berry said that sometimes just making a conscious effort to appreciate and plan for small moments can help ease stress. Planning and looking for such moments every day can also help restore family intimacy that is lost in too-busy lives.
“For example, it’s stressful to get up in the night with a crying infant, but if you take a moment to think ‘I get to cuddle and pat this baby,’ you can try to re-frame the moment. Or plan to read to your kids every night before bed and everyone can look forward to that calming moment.”
“I feel that my kiddos flourish from their experiences in outside activities,” said Katie Beck, a stay-at home-mom of Alex, 7, and Reagan, 4. Reagan will start half-day pre-K this fall. “At 3 or 4, we started looking for activities. They have to learn to take direction from other adults besides mommy and daddy. And, they have to learn to work cooperatively and as a team.
“Even in dance, Regan had to learn to do the dance that all of the other kids were doing, not just the dance that she wanted to. The activities also help increase their strength and their balance, in addition to being physically active.”
Katie also says that Alex’s Taekwondo instructor reinforces the manners and responsibility that she is trying to instill in her children. “Alex is required in class to say “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am” to his instructors. They also expect the students to use those manners outside of class. Alex sees that the manners I am trying to teach are not just important to me, but to all adults.”
However, Katie says that there have been times when she observed the children were in too many activities. Katie plans to temper the activities this fall so that Monday’s are off.
“Our 3-year-old was going to dance on Monday and Tuesday, coupled with Alex in Taekwondo on Tuesday and Wednesday, guitar on Thursday. Friday was soccer practice, Saturday a soccer game and church on Sunday.”
Katie says that because she stays home, they are able to balance this level of activity with family life.
“Activities are almost always after school, between four and six o’clock. We get home about the time Brian, my husband, is getting home from work. So, the kids have time to play with their dad. We always eat meals together at home.”
“I don’t want them to look back on their childhood with regret and would have liked to have had the opportunity to learn a sport or an instrument.”
Cassidy Nelson, a part-time business owner of Tru Salon, has three children, Bella, 9, Anabel, 4, and Lincoln, 2½.
Anabel and Lincoln attend Boston Avenue Weekday School three days per week. Only the two oldest children are involved in activities outside of school.
“I don’t have Anabel in a lot outside of school because at Boston Avenue they are in soccer and music lessons about twice a month. Bella is in cheer twice a week and both girls were in hip hop classes once a week.”
“The reason I don’t have them in multiple activities each is because there is not enough time in the day. I think it is more important to have sit-down meals then to have your kids in a ton of activities.”
Cassidy says that, overall, as long as her children like an activity, she’ll keep them in it. “Bella is good at dancing and she enjoys cheer. As long as she enjoys it, I’ll keep her in it.
“But, I’m also not going to let them quit after two times if they say they don’t like it. For example, Anabel cried the first two to three times in ballet, but now enjoys it and is asking to be in it. She’s learning to socialize better. She’s met friends and is staying active.”
Cassidy shares her personal boundary for activities. “If it comes to a point where it causes a burden financially, you need to cut them because it will cause stress on the marriage and family.”
While Dr. Berry admits that finding balance is easier said than done, she suggests that being more mindful of opportunities can help relieve stress.
“This sounds a little critical,” she said, “but use electronics less. Instead of TVs in cars, use car trips as an opportunity to bond. Read out loud. Play car games. Save time for silliness and spontaneity.”
Dr. Berry also says to greet family members when they come home at the end of the day. “Every culture does this. Say, ‘I’m glad you’re home.’ Put toddlers on your lap before you do anything else and talk to them until they get up. It won’t take long, but you’ve enjoyed each other and reconnected. Turn off the electronics and talk.”
While children will have lots of teachers, parenting is one relationship that shouldn’t be outsourced. Dr. Berry says that nobody else is going to be your children’s parent. You can focus on being the one your children play with, talk to and come to for comfort.
“Decide what makes your family particularly happy,” Dr. Berry said. “Then go do it.”
The Family Versus the Children’s Activities
created by Robert J. Hudson, M.D.
Are you on a merry-go-round of children’s activities? Are you questioning that you have too much to do?
If you are, here are a few more questions to ponder your current state and help you to evaluate how your family spends its time:
- Do you fall into bed each night drained of energy?
- Do you worry about providing all the necessary opportunities for your children?
- Is it really necessary for your children to have planned activities 3-5 times a week for 2-3 children?
- What are the lessons being learned and are they really lasting experiences?
- Is the stress of afternoon carpools and “who is going to this practice and who is going to the other child’s game” a weekly routine?
- When was the last time your family ate five meals together in one week?
- Is eating fast food on the run, having meals with only a part of the family, or sitting down to dinner after 8 pm really beneficial?
- Are your children’s activities really only for them, or would you or your spouse miss it if they quit?
- Whose idea was the current activities, yours, or your child’s?
- When was the last time you and your spouse sat quietly and just talked?
- Is your marriage less of a priority than your child’s activities?
- When was the last time you just “hung out” with your children?
- Do you regularly have one on one time with each of your children? Is that less of a priority than your child’s activities?
- Are you feeling guilty yet? Why are you feeling guilty? Are you not doing something you feel you should, or something you shouldn’t?
- Have you contemplated what your family’s real priorities are, or do your child’s wants prevail?
- Will playing sports at 7,9,11 years old teach lessons you cannot?
- Are there lessons of life your child is not learning because they are at practice?
Life is certainly a trade off of time priorities in today’s world. Will the trade offs you are making prepare your children optimally for the world they will face?
Today’s families spend 22 hours less together than 20 years ago. That is 24 months, 2 years by age 18.
Maybe it is time for a meeting of the parental minds to address your family’s priorities.