October 27, 2013

Motherlode: Parents get to choose how crowded schedules are

What’s too much for one family might work fine for another.

By KJ Dell-Antonia

I would like to say I’m calling this “the year of no.” My iPad screen saver is a big, glorious “NO,” emblazoned and encircled in the middle of the screen. “No” is supposed to be my default response to any additional activities for our family, for the children, for me: “No” to the camp open house, “no” to taking gymnastics even if you can car pool there lots of the time, “no” to the speaking engagement, the coffee, the committee.

This is not because, as my colleague and friend Bruce Feiler suggests in his “This Life” column for the Styles section, “Over-scheduled children: How Big a Problem?” I’m worried about my overscheduled children. Of his attempts (with his wife) to manage their children’s after-school schedules, “mixing sports practices, music lessons, homework, and play dates,” he writes:

“There’s only one problem: To absorb the conventional wisdom in parenting circles these days, what we’re doing to our children is cruel, overbearing, and destructive to their long-term well-being.”

I beg to differ. My children will, I suspect, be fine whether I stuff their schedules with martial-kick-cooking and robot-puppet-soccer or not. But as I head into my fifth year of managing a household that includes four active children (now 12, 10, 8 and 7), I have reached this conclusion: A schedule full of action is indeed cruel, overbearing and destructive to someone’s well-being: mine.

I’m the first to concede that our “no” looks all too much like many people’s “yes.” All four children play hockey (on three different teams), and the two older children do one after-school activity (First Lego League, which they do together). Even without the additional “fun” the two younger children try to sell me on (but why can’t I do gymnastics?), our schedule requires me to put in a couple of hours every Sunday creating the weekly structure of drivers, car pooling and slow-cooker meals that keeps it all possible. (And do I have help? Absolutely – this year, for the first time, I have help every day after school, for which I am grateful on an hourly basis.)

So it would truly be disingenuous to claim that we’re the unscheduled family of “no.” But it could be worse (and one could certainly argue that if the older children get two activities each, the younger two should too, to which I say “no”).

For me, the stress comes from rushing from one thing to another, always having to be somewhere. Thus, I offer: 10 Signs Your Parent Is Overscheduled:

1. Overheard on the phone: “Bobby’s at swimming and coming home with Peter’s mom. Cindy and Jan are at Marcia’s house. Where’s Greg? What time is it? I’ll call you back; I’m getting in the car …”

2. Taco Tuesday stretched into Taco Wednesday and met up with Meatless Taco Thursday.

3. Once described a two-hour-long child’s baseball game as “very relaxing.”

4. Your youngest child has no idea that most people eat cereal for breakfast, not dinner.

5. The school secretary has him on speed dial. “Mr. Brady? Will you be picking up Oliver from aftercare today?”

6. Did two aisles’ worth of grocery shopping before realizing she had some other harried parent’s cart.

7. Put 3,000 miles on the car in the past month without leaving a 20-block radius of home.

8. So dependent on color-coded calendar reminders for each child that he keeps calling you “Purple.”

9. Just took a big swig of yesterday’s coffee from the cup in the cupholder.

10. When he’s late to the after-rehearsal parent meeting, you know where to find him: asleep in the parking lot.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com

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