• Wed, Apr 4 2012

I Wiped My Kids’ Schedules Clean And They’ve Never Been Happier

extra-curricular kidsIf someone were to produce a horror film that substituted helicopter parents for zombies, I’d be the one the sensible good guys rescue from the fray at the very last moment. You see, I was nearly one of them.

When my first daughter was born, my husband and I had big plans for her. Big. The first order of business was language; we were monolingual, but our daughter would be different. Before she hit 10 months, a French nanny was hired and French children’s books procured during a weekend in Paris. We were repaid with her first words: voiture and fleur. My husband would practically weep with pride whenever she called out “chat!” at the strays in the garden. “That’s my daughter,” he’d whimper.

At age 2, she was on a schedule of weekly afternoon French lessons. On odd mornings there were cold, damp hours in the community-center pool. Even mornings were for music. As she grew, we supplement her week with gymnastics at a sanctioned gym club and ballet on Wednesdays – alongside her little sister, still a year off from toilet training when she joined.

It rarely seemed hectic. And it never sounded excessive when I discussed our timetable with the other moms – they were on similar schedules, too.

But somewhere along the line – perhaps around the time I went back to work, or when the little one started becoming too unwieldy, or when simply growing became a task too substantial for them to ignore – we began to scale down. French was the first to go. It was too ambitious from the start: too far a walk and way out of her league as a daughter of two English speakers. That she was taken under the teacher’s wing didn’t impress her at all. My husband was reluctant to let it drop; I simply stopped making the trip.

At ballet, my eldest suddenly started clinging to my leg the way toddlers do, begging to sit on the sidelines with me and watch. All suited up in her tutu, the turquoise one ordered at her behest, she’d suck her thumb in the corner, even while her baby sister had joined the action.

Soccer was a case of bad timing: we started the course just as our daughter was discovering her girlhood and worrying she would be taken for a boy if she played alongside one. She flatly refused and we skulked away before midterm. The pool turned out to be no fun for anyone without a holiday to accompany it, and so we simply “forgot” to enlist the following year. Gymnastics maxed out before we made it to registration, and neither kid seemed to mind.

This new year’s resolution was art. They liked art, I liked art, the class was nearby and her friends attended. Four classes in, I got the signal: the lessons were history.

My daughter – both daughters – have never been happier. This month spring sprung with blossoms, birdsong and the knowledge that our calendar was wide open. There’s time to loiter after school, time for leisurely walks without all my goading, time to sort out our thoughts after a day of learning.

These days my kids are so busy with fun of their own making they forget to whine for their daily juice box. They arrange playdates at the school gates with other amenable kids of reformed helicopter parents. Or they lunge for their art supplies, wearing down each crayon to the nubbin. They round up all the soft things for fort-making and everything plastic for water play in the garden. After bedtime I’ll find notes they’ve written to each other, or, in a cozy corner, “Still Life with Panda and Go-Gos.”

I used to feel guilty my younger daughter was schlepped along to lessons for her older sister, but now I pat myself on the back that it’s the other way around. To use an unfortunate figure of speech: the lowest common denominator won. I’m at peace with the decision to wipe the schedule clean. They’re simply at peace.

(Photo: BestPhotoByMonikaGniot/Shutterstock)

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  • Andrea

    For time and financial reasons, I would love to wipe my sons’ calendars clean. But I am TERRIFIED that as it is, we are not doing enough. When I hear people talk about being our children being overscheduled, my 1st thought is: “Sure, you go first”

    I am so afraid I am not doing enough. Everybody seems to have their children in at LEAST 3 extras. Music, sports, languages, art, whatever. What if my kid is not well rounded? I don’t have many insecurities as a parent, but this one is my irrational fear. Sigh.

  • Lisa

    My children are definitely not overscheduled. We really didn’t do any structured activities until they started school.

    @Andrea, don’t be afraid to let the things go. Kids are supposed to be kids. They are supposed to be silly and have fun. They have structure at school all day. They have to hold it together, follow rules, stand in line, be quiet, raise their hand, follow more rules. After school, they should be able to have some fun. I realized one day as I was yelling at my kids to hurry up, find their gear, we were going to be late, grab a snack for the car, etc., etc, that this was not what I wanted their childhood memories to be. I want them to remember having fun and learning great things by being themselves. I don’t want their childhood memories being me rushing them around, complaining we are going to be late, I have to push them and order them around enough. I drew the line.

    You should try really hard to go first. I don’t think you will regret it. You can always re-sign them up later if it doesn’t work.

  • notorious

    There is plenty of time for a child to become well rounded in the future. There is not a college or job out there that is going to look at what activities a child did in elementary school. Trust.

    It’s become a competition between parents of whose kid can do more, and that is sad. It should never be about that. If a child enjoys an extracurricular activity, then by all means let them do it, but they shouldn’t be forced to do 4 different activities that they couldn’t care less about just because their mom feels that other moms are judging her schedule.

    Good for you Ellen.

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