Fall is the season when kids usually go back, not only to school, but to scheduled activities. Hockey, gymnastics, music, ballet, pottery, swimming …. Of course, some kids go to these lessons all year long, or switch to something different for the summer, like soccer, but many families choose to synchronize their children’s school and organized activity attendance (like we did).
We’re no strangers to the kid-tivity circuit. When Fiona was five, we enrolled her in rhythmic gymnastics. It didn’t seem to be inspiring her, though, so the next year, she tried ballet. She liked it a little better. Ryan’s parents bought the girls swimming lessons for Christmas, which they attended during the winter and spring of that year. The following fall, when Bridget turned five, she started ballet, too. We had an unofficial family rule that there were no extracurricular lessons until the age of five, mainly because we both think that classes for babies and toddlers are pretty silly. (The swimming lessons were an exception, as we were about to spend a week at a cottage with its own beach, and we wanted the girls to have at least a rudimentary grasp of swimming.) Even though both of the girls were attending ballet, it wasn’t overly stressful – their lessons were at the same time, and the ballet school was in the same building as a Food Basics. Ryan and I would do the weekly grocery shop while they did whatever it was they did in ballet class. Learn ballet, I guess. There was a recital, in which they both demonstrated that they had spent time in the same room as the other kids on stage, and then it was summer again. In mid-July, as if they both knew the drill by now, they started talking about which activity they’d try when fall came. Neither wanted more ballet. Fiona said she wanted skating; Bridget said she wanted gymnastics. Since extracurriculars for children are simply what one does, we signed them up. Fiona’s skating was on Mondays. We’d get home from work and daycare, scarf down spaghetti, then Ryan would take Fiona to her skating lesson while I stayed home with Bridget and we made the next day’s lunches together. Bridget’s gymnastics was on Tuesdays, earlier in the evening. We’d have dinner at Subway, then drop Ryan off at home, where he’d slap together tomorrow’s sandwiches while I drove Bridget to gymnastics. While she was at gymnastics, Fiona and I would shop for groceries. I enjoyed those little slices of one-on-one time with each girl. But I didn’t enjoy our family’s schedule, and neither did Ryan. Neither did Fiona and Bridget, after the novelty of skating and gymnastics wore off. Sure, they had fun once they arrived and started their lesson, but many weeks the announcement that it was Monday or Tuesday and we were working around the corresponding activity was greeted with sighs and groans. “But I wanted to play with my hamster / make a craft / read my new library book / play a game!”
The girls were tired. Two scheduled late bedtimes every week isn’t good for kids. And heaven forbid something else was added to the week, like a birthday party or dinner guests or a weekend away – or something equally disruptive but less pleasant, like a major homework assignment or head lice or a water main break. That could push them to the cracking point. Ryan and I were tired, too. Tired of saying “no, you can’t do insert-requested-activity-here; it’s Monday / Tuesday, and you know we have skating / gymnastics today”. “No, we’re not reading one more story, you need to go to bed early – remember you’re up late tomorrow night.” “No, we really can’t fit this in right now, we’ve got enough going on.” Tired of going to bed Sunday nights with the one-two punch of Monday and Tuesday hanging over us. Tired of dragging kids who’ve already had a long day at school and daycare to yet another place where they needed to pay attention and play along. Tired of thinking the girls should miss their class this or that one time, then guiltily pushing them to attend anyway, because we’d paid big bucks for each lesson. Tired of strangling spontaneity with the chains we’d forged ourselves. Just tired. And we only had two kids in two extracurriculars! I can’t imagine how families manage more than that, yet I know they do. There are families who live in their minivan, eating drive-thru dinners behind the wheel, ferrying the kids all over the city four or more nights per week, and maybe Saturday mornings, too. Kids who do their homework in the waiting areas of dance studios, arenas and gyms while their sibling is taking a lesson. Why? Because it’s what one does, of course.
This year, after much discussion, Ryan and I decided to say “no” to organized activities. We didn’t sign the girls up for anything. They considered their options again, but never actually asked for any particular lessons. So we let the registration deadlines slide by …. At first, it felt like a negative choice. Every other family does the extracurricular thing; so should we, right? Our girls are enrolled in …. nothing? Really? It’s just not what families do. It felt strange even discussing it with other parents. Some parents expressed admiration for our choice, and said they wish they could do the same (without explaining why they couldn’t, of course). The father of one of Fiona’s friends confessed that he doesn’t enjoy the extracurricular grind, and he doesn’t think his daughter does, either. Yet, he has enrolled his daughter in a couple of weekly lessons because he doesn’t want her to end up outclassed by her peers – a misfit because she is just a regular person with no sharply-honed talents. This thought has crossed my mind the odd time, too – I don’t want Fiona and Bridget to feel out-of-place when they are all grown up and their friends are showing off their mad skillz on the oboe, the balance beam, the rink and the canvas. But do they need to be experts in any of these areas to be well-rounded? No. This is simply what we’ve been programmed to believe. They’ve had many different experiences in many different situations, and I highly doubt they won’t have anything to talk about when they are older just because they’ve never spent a summer’s worth of Saturday mornings on a soccer field.
We are heading into the third week of the school year, and already it feels like we’ve made the right choice – and it doesn’t feel negative anymore. In fact, by not scheduling our kids’ downtime, we’ve been able to say “yes” more. “Yes, you can explore the pet store at the mall, even though we’re only here for Subway and the bank – we’re not in a hurry.” “Yes, you can tell us this long, complicated story of what happened on the playground today, because we can linger over dinner.” “Yes, you can spend a bit of extra time with your hamster – it’s no big deal if bedtime shifts by fifteen minutes. We can make up for that tomorrow.” “A two-birthday-party weekend? Sure – nobody’s overtired and in need of make-up sleep.” We just said “yes” to an outdoor concert on a Thursday night (Dear Rouge, Lorde and Serena Ryder were wonderful) – and all four of us had a great time. We might not have done that if Thursday came after two or more late bedtimes, or if there were lessons of some kind scheduled for Thursday evenings. Fiona once wistfully said “I wish I could just relax today”, and I remember thinking “how sad that she is saying that at the ripe old age of eight“. Everyone should have time to relax, especially kids. They should look for shapes in the clouds, compose short stories with fantastic plots, inventory their rock collections, watch ants at work, spin until they’re dizzy, empty their mind and just be.
We’re not going to spend all our free time dong nothing …. We’re planning to go swimming and skating together, and maybe we can spend more time at the park. We used to go for walks alot – maybe we’ll start doing that again. I’m going to start teaching Fiona and Bridget how to play the piano, and some basic sewing skills. Ryan and I have been toying with the idea of one-on-one dates with them, where we split them up to spend quality time with them as individuals, then trade kids the next time. We’ll still be busy – but the schedule will be a flexible one that we set ourselves, and I have a feeling that we’re going to be happier as a result. There will definitely be some couch spudding, though, and that’s ok, too – because we’ll have time for it now.