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A New Idea For Kids: Try Doing Nothing

How to keep your children--and yourself--sane in a world that prizes activity.

Some kids rise at the crack of dawn each day, lace up their skates and get on the ice rink. Then it’s off to school for a full day of classes, yet another activity, homework and,  finally, bed.

It’s not unusual for kids to be involved in three, four, even five activities. Parents shuttle them from school to music lessons, sports, theater groups, religious school, tutoring, scouts and more. Every day of the week is booked.

But not my kid. She functions better with a healthy mix of activity and downtime. And I’ve learned that’s OK.

Don’t get me wrong. My 11-year-old’s engaged. She competes on Northbrook’s Teams Elite Synchronized Skating Team and the Northbrook Competitive Figure Skating Team. From January through April, she’s in full motion, competing nearly every weekend. It’s just that we’ve learned to pace her, like a racehorse, to give her enough time to decompress and sometimes, maybe just coast a little between bursts of activity. 

When I was a kid, an activity or two rounded out my schedule at any given time. I competed on my school’s gymnastics team, played flute in the band and wrote for the school newspaper. Most days after school, I did my homework and then hung out with a friend watching TV and eating potato chips. Yes, times have changed.

Still, what’s wrong with a little downtime?

Many of us wrestle with how many extracurricular activities are right for our kids. Because our greatest hope is for them to succeed and be happy, we expose them to everything under the sun. We feel compelled to nurture any budding talent. How do I know my daughter isn’t destined to be a star volleyball player or a poet, if just given the chance? At the very least, her involvement will look good on college applications. And, just maybe, she’ll get a scholarship. That’s the thinking. 

But how much is too much? Not every kid thrives on a tight, daily schedule. My daughter rebels against too much structure.  When she starts to feel boxed in, you can hear the rumblings of a volcano about to erupt. She likes being busy, but there’s something about having too much on her plate that tips her over the edge. A number of studies show that kids need more downtime to actually process new learning, solidify memory, sharpen senses and improve judgment.

I’ve begged and pleaded with her to skate more, to no avail. She’d rather make plans with a friend or just hang out. It’s not that she’s lazy. She does skate three or four times a week and even gets up for an occasional early morning practice. She’s involved in [the school's] yearbook too. And, most important, she gets good grades. That’s enough to expect from any sixth grader.

I just don’t want to fall into the trap of being a “hyperparent.” We all know when our kids have taken on too much. Things start to fall apart. Homework is forgotten, things are misplaced, kids are crabby and the bedrooms are messi(er). The craziness spills over into the rest of our family life. When I have to begin my day by tearing apart dresser drawers searching for an Under Armour or showing up at school mid-morning with some essential assignment, it’s all downhill.

When kids take on more than one time-consuming extracurricular activity—be it a sports team or theater group—you have to wonder. Who’s driving this? Is it the parents or the child? We need to take a step back and ask ourselves what’s the best balance for our families.

In my opinion, kids need at least one day a week after school that’s purposely left wide open. A “down day.” No sports or play practice, just homework, maybe hanging out with a friend, chill, read a book. Let your kid re-energize. Regain your sanity. We’ll all be happier.

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