The myth that lazy afternoons spent "doing nothing" is a colossal waste of time has prompted many well-intended parents to load up their kids' schedules-with everything from ballet classes and piano lessons to math enrichment and volunteer work. Top it all off with a heavy dose of after-school and summer day care, and before they even know what they're missing, little Johnny and tiny Sue have been robbed of one of the fundamental perks of childhood: the joy of discovery.
So what if others with Ivy League aspirations for their children are racing to beef up their preschoolers' resumes? I have a hunch there's a better way to grow a well-rounded child.
And I say we leave it to the kids to discover it for themselves.
I recall an afternoon a few years ago when my kids announced they were bored. Instead of rushing in with a solution, I left them to their own devices. They conjured up a game they called "don't touch the carpet," where they stood on one blanket and tossed pillows and whatever else they could find onto the floor, creating "stepping stones." They still occasionally wend their way around the house, giggling and shrieking, as they collaborate and decide how far apart the stones should be to avoid falling "in."
"Falling into what?" I recently asked my son. Come to find out, they've never even discussed it.
"It's sort of implied what happens," Noah said, smiling. So fantasy is involved, that wonderfully magical, childish doorway to dreams and possibilities.
If allowed to blossom, fantasy play and other self-initiated activities inspire children to develop unique interests and problem-solving skills, and later, to become interesting adults equipped with the tools to create their own happiness. Isn't necessity the mother of invention? For the typical child, no to-do list of enrichment activities or motherlode of high-tech toys will ever match the confidence he can gain from charting his own course.
Childhood is not a race. And sometimes, less is more. Way more.
This doesn't mean you should cut out all extracurricular activities or feel guilty for finding something for your kids to do that gets them out of your hair every once in a while. I'm just suggesting you strive for more balance between structured and unstructured time.
Children need time to unwind and process what they've already learned and experienced and to recharge their batteries. They need downtime, but many don't get any. The values of productivity, perfection and competition have so mesmerized our society that many of our children are now suffering as a consequence. Overbooked kids complain of tummy aches, headaches, difficulty sleeping or concentrating in school, anxiety, irritability or anger. More frequent meltdowns happening? A clear sign that your child is overstimulated. When he says, "I just want to stay home and play with my friends," you should listen.
He's got plenty of time to be an adult. But this childhood gig? It's ever fleeting. Let it be.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.