For three hours of one day last week, we had only one car. The minivan’s tire blew, and it was in the shop during that crucial after-school time slot when Liam and Teenasia had baseball and soccer practice, respectively, on opposite ends of two neighboring suburbs. Jacob would need to be picked up from his tennis match across town, and Jamie would need to be dropped off at her Irish dance lesson, a few blocks away. With two cars, the routine was complicated, but possible. With one car, we needed to start thinking about calling friends for driving favors, or including into our routine the free shuttle provided by the repair shop.
If you looked at any one of our four children, you would not say he or she was overprogrammed. In addition to school, each child has one or two outside activities. For each individual child, the schedule is manageable. The complication is in the multiples. One family I know, also with four kids, had one weekend with eleven games.
Parents’ responses to the heightened level of organized sports and activities for children are varied. Some parents embrace the opportunities their children have— feeling there is little downside to the competition, fun and talent development. Other parents approach their kids’ activity level more cautiously, wary of injuries and burnout that can happen when kids do too much too soon. Most parents are looking for that sweet spot of balance— finding the activities that engage their children without sacrificing the pleasure that can come from having unstructured time as a family.
Some experienced parents admit they got out of the blocks too fast with their first child, not recognizing how long they had for organized activities. Maureen, mother of five ranging from toddler to teen, said: “Early in my parenting career I felt pressure to get my young children involved in everything. I felt as if my kids would be socially awkward if I deprived them of activities. Several kids later, by the grace of God, I have wised up and learned that overdoing activities wreaks havoc on good families and makes everyone feel crazy.’ Our current family rule is one activity at a time.” Reginald, father of five children under ten, believes that young children first and foremost need time with parents. “My wife and I only have so much time to try and parent everyone while they are in the young ages,” he said. “Running them around takes us away from face-to-face time. I heard a speaker say that every kid needs a small town. And I think that as parents and a family, we are their first and hopefully strongest small town. I hope to develop other small towns for them—through more activities-- when they are older.”
My friend Denise, who has four children ages four to 11, told me that she and her husband Arthur take this view: “We may make a mistake and may miss signing them up for something for which they have a real talent. We are not going to stress over this. We believe God is generous and gives us more talents and gifts than we can ever really use.” Denise’s comment of God giving us an abundance of talents is a thought I return to when I consider our daughter Teenasia, who so far, has shown talent at every sport she has tried. While our boys are decent athletes, they are not gifted in the same way Teenasia is, and Bill and I are learning that Teenasia will likely need to leave some of her potential on the table as we together make choices about what sports to pursue seriously as she gets older.
Other friends, John and Anne, parents of four, have told us they look to their faith for guidance. “We weigh the value of activities. We try to discern what God’s will is for our time and talent – who is served by what we do,” said Anne.
Parents of middle schoolers and teens who have successfully shepherded their children through the plethora of activity options say they have needed to keep an eye on their child’s physical, emotional and mental health. Sports medicine doctors are reporting that sports injuries that once were only common in serious college athletes are now seen at the middle- and high school levels. Teens who have given their childhood to a club sport can feel an unhealthy sense of obligation to continue the sport beyond the point that it is enjoyable to them. “We have watched as friends have chosen a state cup soccer game over a graduation and we have not agreed with those choices,” said Pam, mother of two teen girls. “I think parents get so flattered and caught up when their child gets to a high level team that they accept Sunday morning games, tremendous expenses and family stress to maintain that status. Our place of peace has come from questioning ‘at what price?’”
Talking to parents on the sidelines of tennis, soccer, baseball, Irish dance, and track this spring, I have come to the conclusion that there’s no easy answer in determining what level of activity and competition fits a family. The key seems to be in parents holding a sense of intentionality regarding the choice—to have a well-thought out reason for either choosing or not choosing a particular activity. The parents who seemed the most satisfied with their children’s activities were the ones who had spent some time thinking and discussing the reasons they were choosing a particular activity. And when to do all this thinking and discerning? Well, to me, a folding camp chair on the sidelines of a game on a sunny day, seems as good of a spot as any.