Most of us moms are waiting until the day someone finds us out and hands out the Worst Mom of the Year certificate. We’re each holding onto a different issue filled with guilt. There seem to be all these societal “rules” to follow that none of us can keep up with. And here’s my secret (well, I guess not so secret anymore): we keep our kids out of extra-curricular activities as much as possible.
“But, how will they get into Harvard?” some fictitious voice asks in astonished horror. Well, I really could care less if they go to Harvard. And if that’s what it takes to get into these over-competitive schools, then they’ll just have to suck it up and go to community college and state school like their parents did.
I hate the whole extracurricular thing. I know so many parents who have become chauffeurs for their children. Driving back and forth from dance to soccer to whatever… And they do it with incredible love and generosity. I don’t have it in me to do that. I do those drives with bitterness and resentment.
More important than extracurricular activities
For me, it’s about more than my hatred of traffic. I mean, it’s partly about my hatred of traffic; I spend plenty of time commuting as it is. More importantly though, it’s about wanting to stick to my parenting mission – that the kids will be independent, resilient, and kind. It’s a kind of mantra in my head. If I focus on teaching them to take care of themselves, bounce back from fallbacks, and treat others with kindness, then it becomes much clearer how I should spend my precious minutes with them. And extracurricular activities only fit into some of those minutes.
Here’s how we’ve done it (so far):
Put if off as long as possible
When my daughter was in preschool and she started noticing her friends going to dance and sports classes, she asked me when she could go too. I told her, “You get to go to preschool! Isn’t that wonderful? So many children don’t get to go to preschool. At preschool, you have sports, music, and art. You are so lucky! One day when you’re a big girl in elementary school and you don’t have so many enrichments, we’ll talk about it. Okay?”
You know how little kids seem to forget most of what you say except for the things that you want them to forget? Yep. She held onto this one tightly. The summer before 1st grade, she reminded me. “Mommy! You said when I was in elementary school I got to do something after school. Well, I’ll be there next month, right? So it’s time, right?”
Inside I screamed, “NOOOO!!! I don’t wanna goooooo!!!” That same awful whining she gives me on a regular basis. But I bit my tongue and signed her up for gymnastics. Once a week we rushed from school and snack into the car to gymnastics class, where I struggled to entertain her little brother in the lobby for an hour while she rolled around on the mats.
I don’t want to deprive my kids of these activities. But I do believe they are a privilege and not a right. And I believe they have limited advantages. So, I put it off for both of them as long as possible. My preschooler is still not in any extracurriculars.
Stick it Out
My daughter loved gymnastics for the first half of the year and then lost interest. I made her finish out the year. The good parent in me said, “When we make a commitment in this family, we stick to it. Mommy and Daddy already paid for the full year, so you will finish. You can do something new in 2nd grade.” But, the selfish horrible parent in me kept to herself, “Oh you tortured me with gymnastics for 3 months! Now I’ll torture you back by making you stick with it!” Who’s ready to give me that WMY certificate yet?
She moved on from gymnastics and has been doing karate for a year and a half. I’m still dragging her little brother along to these classes and sticking to my guns – he’s still in preschool; no extra-curriculars!
Who Made Extra-Curriculars the Unspoken Rule?
What is it about these extra-curricular activities? Who decided that they’re good for our kids and that this is how any of us are supposed to be spending our precious evening family time?
I came across The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting in the New York Times last month. The article links the dramatic increase in expenditure on children to overall economic anxiety. The world around us brings greater uncertainty every day it seems. Economists report that our children’s generation is likely to be less prosperous than their parents, the first time this has been true since the Great Depression. We are told that colleges are becoming more competitive and that our kids need the best advantages we can give them. Extracurricular activities seem like an easy way to start checking off that college resume early.
In other words, while many parents select extracurricular activities that align with their children’s interests and needs, the larger cultural push for over-programming our children has to do with ensuring they make a living in decades from now, not about nurturing their growth and humanness.
I Still Don’t Care if My Kids Go to Harvard
I read once that one of the downsides of the over-programmed child is that they don’t learn how to take care of themselves. They become accustomed to someone else managing their schedules, activities, and overall life. Young people coming out of college find themselves lost and confused without an external body organizing their days and weeks.
The ability to take care of one’s self starts early. It starts with learning how to fill an hour on one’s own around the house. To be honest, it’s one of the things I have struggled with for my daughter for all 8 years of her life so far. She cannot fill time on her own. When she was an infant, she would cry if we left her alone in her bouncy seat for a few minutes. I’d rather she learns how to manage her own boredom and attachment issues than ballet positions. We haven’t figured this one out yet, but we’re working hard on it.
Okay, ONE Extra-Curricular
Yes, I still take her to karate. We do it twice a week. I go one day; my husband goes the other day. But I try to remind her gently that this is a gift. Our time, our money, her brother’s time occupying himself in the playroom – these are all gifts for her because we love her and know that she is really growing in this class. But there are not unlimited minutes or dollars or brother’s patience. It is important in our family that our children learn empathy. They can begin with learning empathy for their family. Besides my boundless love for them, my resources are limited and she cannot expect whatever she wants, whenever she wants. Mommy’s time is important, too. Even if my children are the most important things in my entire life, they are not the only important things in my life.
So, to the super secret council that hands out these imaginary certificates: You can give me Worst Mom of the Year. I’ll take it. Because my kids are going to grow up knowing how to take care of themselves and be empathetic and kind to others. They might not grow up to be star athletes, but they will be super-star humans.
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