TAWN PARENT Commentary: In defense of daydreaming

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In addition to standbys like Little League and Girl Scouts, our children have the opportunity to learn sailing at Geist Reservoir, strut their stuff at the Jewish Community Center’s Broadway camp, or try medieval fantasy drawing at the Indianapolis Art Center.

With such an appetizing array of choices, it’s hard to resist serving our kids a heaping plateful. Most of us want to give our children advantages we were not afforded, and “Mixed Media for Preschoolers” certainly qualifies.

Besides, who can deny the benefits of gaining coordination, learning to lose graciously, and developing a wicked plié? The prospect list for my first-grader this fall includes piano lessons, soccer, Cub Scouts, chess club, church choir and swimming lessons. Would any of them be a waste of time? Wouldn’t they all make him more well-rounded and give him skills that would prove useful later in life?

But our motivations are sometimes selfish. Parents may push their sons and daughters to excel in activities as a way of reliving their own youth or creating a “trophy” child.

And kids are not the only ones subject to peer pressure. Parents may feel compelled to enroll their children in as many activities as the family next door.

But whose kids are they, anyway?

Child-development experts caution that, in our rush to enrich our children, we may be exhausting them. When they get older, will they remember how much they learned, or only the endless rush to the next activity?

It’s not just the experts who are ringing alarm bells. So are many professionals, and their kids.

Working Mother magazine recently asked 200 women at one of its events to identify their biggest child-rearing challenge. The top vote-getter: scheduling, which outranked discipline, health and school concerns.

Kids are complaining, too. About 215 area 9- to 13-yearolds who visited the Ruth Lilly Health Education Center early this year were among 882 nationally to participate in a KidsHealth KidsPoll. Forty-one percent of those surveyed reported feeling stressed “most of the time” or “always” because they think they have too much to do.

Childhood is not a dress rehearsal for adulthood. Although most parents want to foster high achievement, a full slate of organized activities is not necessarily the way to do it. Sure, many parents are successful because they’ve taken juggling to new heights. But kids deserve time to mature before being expected to keep so many balls in the air.

Children can develop valuable life skills in places besides the gym or an art studio. They can even get them in the place we may least expect it-at home.

Many benefits of participating in sports (self-confidence, better behavior, teamwork, persistence) can be gained with less hassle through the original “team”-the family. The trick: giving sons and daughters responsibilities and healthy doses of meaningful family time.

“Research says that what children need most are relationships, not activities,” Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld said in the January 2003 issue of Psychology Today. He wrote the book “The Over-scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-parenting Trap.” Planting a garden together, playing a game of cards, or riding bikes does more to build a relationship than driving your children around and cheering from the sidelines.

Less structure also gives kids time to be kids and to practice the disappearing art of reflection.

Author Anna Quindlen summed it up well:

“Downtime is where we become ourselves, looking into the middle distance, kicking at the curb, lying on the grass or sitting on the stoop and staring at the tedious blue of the summer sky. I don’t believe you can write poetry, or compose music or become an actor without downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity.” So what’s a parent to do? Set limits: Experts recommend that children in elementary school not participate in more than three activities consuming a total of about three hours a week. Take a look in the mirror: Many of us may overschedule our kids because of our own 24/7 lifestyles. When was the last time a weekend stretched before you with nothing on the calendar? If you can’t remember, carve out a weekend to just be. Help kids make choices: Ask your children, “What do you love?” “What can you live without?” Try alternating activities. Kids can experience many sports, lessons and clubs; they don’t have to happen at the same time. Watch for signs of stress: Pay attention to mood changes, fatigue, headaches or stomachaches, a decline in school performance or a change in appetite. Get creative: Hire a college student or neighbor to care for your youngsters at home instead of enrolling them in a parade of after-school activities or summer camps. Dare to be “unproductive” with your kids: Go ahead. Put down that BlackBerry, and pick up a Frisbee. Another school year is looming. There are decisions to be made. Will you put your children in the fast lane or share with them the joys of taking the slow road?

Parent is associate editor of IBJ. Her column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tparent@ibj.com.

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