Ask the Expert: Children’s busy schedules are driving us mad

Q How many extra-curricular activities should you take your children to? I have three children (five, seven and nine) and the week feels like one busy merry-
go-round, with me and my husband driving them to and from sports
and afterschool activities, not to mention parties and play-dates. It used to be just about manageable until my youngest started school this year and now with all the things he has to do, it has become really pressured.

The weekend is the most unmanageable and it is a real juggling act to get them to everything with my husband and I making separate runs to cope. There is also the cost of keeping them involved in these events.

Of course I know that you are going to say that we should simply cut down on what they do but we want to make sure they get every opportunity. The other children in their classes seem to be doing just as much and we don’t want to disadvantage them in any way.

A These days, there is definitely increased pressure on parents to ensure that their children are involved in a large number of extra-curricular activities and sports.

This is very different than a generation ago when children may have been largely left to their own devices to organise their play and to make friends outside of school.

In certain circles nowadays, there is increased competition between parents to ensure their child is getting the best opportunities and this can feed on parental guilt for other parents who can worry their children might miss out if they don’t attend every activity (despite the financial and time cost).

As a result, many families are caught in the busy treadmill you talk about, full of pressured runs between events and long stressful times spent travelling.

The truth is that children can benefit as much from unstructured relaxed time at home with their family as they can from planned activities.

It is very important to remove the pressure and stress and to create a balanced routine for everyone.

Prioritise and plan
In organising your week, the key is to prioritise the activities that are most important to each of your children. Rather than involving them in everything, try to "tune into" each of your children and notice what things they most enjoy or have a talent for.

One or two activities is probably sufficient once they are well chosen. As they get older, involve them in making these choices and expect commitments from them if you put time and effort into supporting their choices.

Good planning can make a big difference to making a busy weekly schedule more manageable. For example, you might be able to choose activities near by or integrated into the school day or make agreements with other parents about sharing drop-off duties.

Try to achieve some “win-wins” in a busy schedule. Maybe you can spend individual time with one child when another is at an activity or have some personal time reading a book over coffee as you wait for a child to finish.

You could even try to make the car journeys with all three children calmer and more enjoyable (perhaps listening to music or playing games in the car).

Have unstructured time at home
A busy schedule with every gap filled is not particularly beneficial to children, and can even be stressful to children who also need plenty of relaxing down time at home.

In addition, children benefit from periods of boredom when they have to learn to plan and manage their own time. Learning to be responsible for your own time encourages creativity, self-determination and motivation.

In the home, your job as a parent is to support them to make good choices, by limiting passive activities such as TV and computers, and encouraging healthy choices such as reading, arts and crafts, according to your child’s interests.

Organise play dates and visits in your home which bring new novelty to your children in their play as well as great social benefits.

In addition, encourage your children to take part in household chores such as cooking and cleaning as these are not only helpful to you but also great for their learning and self-esteem.

Organise your own activities for your children
Modern parents get into the habit of taking their children to events and classes and always relying on other people to be the teacher and mentor to their children.

In traditional societies it was the parents who largely fulfilled these roles and children learned all their skills from their parents by working with them on tasks and so on. As a result, these traditional families were often more connected and content.

Consider being your children’s mentor and teacher. Discover activities that you can do together which give you a chance to share skills with your children such as cooking, baking or cleaning.

Rather than taking them to a swimming class, could you teach them to swim yourself? Even if you don’t know too much about these skills, it can be great to learn them with your children. Why not try doing a gardening project together that everyone learns from or consider taking up a musical instrument with one of your children.

One father I worked with started learning the guitar in the home with his eight-year-old son. This allowed his son to see him in a different light, and learning together became a special enjoyable experience between them. In addition, simple family activities can be just as educational as going to structured classes.

Family walks that include tuning into nature and bird or insect spotting can involve a lot of fun and stress-free learning. And all of this can be free or cost next to nothing.

Dr John Sharry is a psychotherapist and director of the Parents Plus charity. He will be delivering a "Creating Work Life Balance" seminar in association with The Irish Times on November 9th in Wynns Hotel, Dublin 1.

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