Posted in Family

The Controversy of Kid-Calendars

The other day a blogging-friend (Judy, over at Connecting Dots…to God) posed a question which is plaguing a whole generation of parents. The dilemma? Kid-calendars!

Many kids today have such busy schedules that a person might be forgiven for mistaking a glimpse of their calendars for schedules of heads of state. Even parents who remember their own happy and well-adjusted childhoods full of play have begun to worry that they’re doing their kids a disservice if they don’t keep up with the frantic pace of the “high-mileage mom” next door.

kids playing with friends
I remember all the spontaneous games-of-imagination we played with our friends and the neighborhood kids… No scheduling required, and no admission cost!

Terms like “hyper-parenting” and “helicopter parenting” are flying around, and emotions and arguments are running hot on both sides of the issue. Some of the statistics on the issue are pretty cut-and-dried, but the interpretation and application of those statistics are anything but. It seems that wherever they stand in their own parenting choices, parents feel “under attack” and defensive–so we get attacks flying both directions.

kids reading
Everyone in our household has a library card… and when we do have a little spending-money, the folks in the second-hand bookstores know us by name!

Some parents don’t have the luxury of choice, because kid-activities are expensive!  Our son’s high school charges $180 up-front for participation in each school sport, and then there’s the required “Spirit Pack” (another $40 for team-logo sweatshirts, socks, shorts, and jerseys), and then there are the mandatory equipment purchases (not only the pricey athletic shoes, but pads, helmets, and uniform pieces), and on top of that there’s required fund-raising to pay for buses and coaches and other team expenses… I’d assumed initially that there might be a waiver or scholarship or some sort of assistance for families who don’t have that kind of money, but nope–if you can’t pay, you don’t play.

family picnics
We keep our favorite picnic blanket (made by my mom) in the trunk of the car, and so what if our “picnic basket” is a paper grocery bag? We’ve enjoyed picnics at the park, the zoo, the train depot, the state capitol, the lake, the roadside on car trips, even our own yard. Why not?

I’m pleased at least that his Varsity coach expects the boys to do their own fund-raising; the J.V. coach last year blithely suggested that the easiest approach is for parents just to write a check for the required per-player fund-raising amount of several hundred dollars. That rubbed me the wrong way on several levels. For one thing, I was grounded in the “ethic” early on that a Girl Scout sold her own cookies–it wasn’t acceptable to send the sign-up sheet to work with your parents. (To this day, I’ll buy a box if a girl approaches me–even if my freezer is already stuffed with Girl Scout cookies–but when I get tackled by a mom outside the grocery store? No way.)  So I objected to the coach’s approach from that standpoint–and also from the viewpoint that we were looking at welching on our power bill just to scrape together the other required funds… (The power company can’t turn off the heat during winter months in a household with children, so we knew we’d have until March to deal with that.)

family board games
We’ve picked up board games at thrift stores and garage sales, and when grandparents ask for family gift-ideas, this is our suggestion–something we can all do together

But I digress–the point I intended to make is that even school-related activities are expensive these days, and the extra soccer, hockey, Little League, music lessons, ballet lessons, karate lessons, club teams, and other structured activities are even more costly.  Especially in a household with multiple children, a family needs to have some solid finances in place even for school sports, let alone cramming a kid’s schedule with “extras.”

public parks
Our local parks offer hiking & biking trails, playgrounds, tennis courts, skateboard ramps, swimming beaches, fishing holes and wide-open spaces for PLAY

I’m sure for some families this is a source of anxiety; watching all the neighbors’ minivans go tearing around town to catch the round-robin of games, matches, recitals, concerts, displays, and competitions, a parent might begin to fret about whether their kids are missing out on necessary experiences due to income level.  There are plenty of other families, though, who could afford all the activities but choose not to. And some of these parents, too, find themselves fretting that they’re being “bad parents” (or even “lazy” parents) because they aren’t devoting their days to driving their kids hither and yon. There’s certainly plenty of pressure on this score, even when it’s only in the form of overheard mom-talk at the kids’ school or daycare…

helping at home, kids' chores
we match the kids’ helping-jobs to their interests… Elena enjoys her role as “kitchen apprentice” and loves washing windows, Christian likes chopping and digging and raking; Kapena likes jobs that involve machinery… And EVERYBODY likes washing the car!

I was a stay-home mom for five years, so the kids didn’t need daycare during those preschool years. I did, however, enroll Christian in the YMCA preschool for a few hours a week to make sure he got some social-time, since no one else in our social circle had kids yet. I was shocked to overhear the mom-conversations going on around the pick-up area when it came time for kindergarten registrations. Boise schools have “open enrollment,” meaning that each child is assigned by default to the school nearest them, but parents can request to have their kids moved to a different school.

All of us there at the Y would be assigned toTaft Elementary by default, but every other mother there had requested a move. Taft happens to be situated near a pocket of refugee-housing, so (although Boise is, overall, a thoroughly “white-bread” community) Taft has a much more diverse student population. Many of the kids are from Africa. Many of them are Black. Many of them are Muslim.  “Have you SEEN the kids who go to that school?” one mother asked another, with a shudder of distaste.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Oh yes–I can just imagine what damage would be done to our kids if they should experience other languages, cultures, or colors!  We’d better protect them from boys named Muhammed and girls in head scarves… (On the contrary–Christian now acts as a designated “buddy” for new arrivals who don’t speak English…)

free events & activities
We keep an eye out for events & experiences that don’t come with an admission cost… Farmer’s Market, Art in the Park, free days at local museums, historical re-enactments, festivals, rodeos, science exhibits, fireworks–and when family members visit, we ask if we can swim at their motel pool. Photos here are from the Basque museum, whaling museum, monster truck rally, Renaissance Fair, art in the park, zoo, & a motel pool.

As it happens, Taft Elementary (despite severe poverty and linguistic challenges experienced by its student population) wins awards every year for its creative and successful approach to educating kids. I had absolutely no reason to fight for a spot on another Kindergarten waiting-list, but that experience brought home to me how seriously parents take their kids’ enrollments and activities–even at the age of five!

That’s the same sort of pressured thinking that goes into activity-scheduling for a lot of families. A lot of parents seem focused on building their kids’ “resumés” even before the kids can spell their own names. Dr. William Doherty, who has written a book on the subject of “over-scheduled” kids, attributes this drive to several factors in American life.

Imaginations are always active around here! Just ask Christian’s invisible dragon… And even our tone-deaf son ENJOYS music, though he can’t PRODUCE it well (but hey, no one is critiquing during a sing-along)…

He cites the increase in working parents (and the corresponding increase in guilty feelings about not  spending enough time or “doing enough” for their kids), a pervasive fear of a child being left out or left behind by other kids accelerating and excelling in their accomplishments, peer pressure from other parents, and an overactive sense of alarm in reaction to the cultural message that being busy is a superior state compared to “idleness.” He had this to say about what he sees as the culture of over-scheduling kids:

“The adult world of hyper-competition and marketplace values has invaded the family.  Parents still love their children and try to do what is best for them, but we’re missing our children in a culture that defines a good parent as an opportunity-provider in a competitive world.  Parenting becomes like product development, with insecure parents never knowing when they’ve done enough and when their children are falling behind.  Keeping our children busy at least means they are in the game.”

goofing around
Goofing Around–an important human activity! ;)

At the same time, there are plenty of “experts” who come down on the other side of the argument as well. With all the conflicting reporting and pressure (real or perceived) from parenting-peers, many parents are anxious about whether they’re providing sufficient opportunities for their kids–and (paradoxically) worried at the same time that they’re over-working their kids.

Studies conducted in the last decade (including reports by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the Council of Economic Advisers to the President, and the YMCA) do show marked changes in practices and habits on the American “family front.” Pundits on both sides of the issue debate the meaning of these statistics, but they don’t dispute the stats themselves:

  • A pronounced decrease in free time for both preschool and school-aged children, and a sharp decline in “unstructured” outdoor activities.
  • A marked decrease in family meal-time, and the number of family dinners per week.
  • A noticeable decrease in the nutritional value of kids’ meals, which may be tied to the corresponding drop in family dinners and the common practice of resorting to fast food and meals-on-the-go.
  • A decided decrease in family vacation time.
  • A clear decrease in religious participation among families with school-aged children.
  • A striking decrease in children’s time with their parents–particularly if you don’t count “parent spectatorship” as time-spent-together.
  • A considerable increase (more than doubled in a decade!) of children’s participation in organized sports.
  • A clear increase in passive spectating, which includes watching siblings’  sports and activities.

The statistics aren’t in dispute, but their interpretations–as well as their cause-and-effect relationships–are still being debated. For example, the decrease in family vacation time may be due to economic factors rather than kids’ schedules. And other factors which I didn’t even list here (like the increase in anti-depressant medications being prescribed to kids) haven’t been definitively linked to over-scheduling, although many people suggest a connection. So when we really come down to it, there’s no cut-and-dried answer to this issue.

backyard play
We made up a “team T-shirt” for our ongoing backyard badminton tournament… sometimes with a celebratory marshmallow roast after the games. And of course we have sprinkler-running, sidewalk art with colored chalk, backyard picnics, ballgames with invented rules…

However…  I remember a solid piece of parenting-advice my mother gave me when I first embarked on the Mommy-gig, fortified with every parenting-book I could get my hands on. When it came right down to it, though, she told me for pete’s sake to “put down the book and pick up the baby!” None of the “experts” can give us a definitive answer about how we should schedule our kids’ time–but if we look to our individual kids, we can start to form some answers.

And the answer won’t be the same for every kid! Some kids thrive on scheduled and structured activity, while other kids (maybe even in the same family) prefer free, unstructured time to play or read or invent their own entertainments.

Our two youngest are in a position to compare and decide precisely what they prefer, due to the very different lifestyles between their dad’s house and ours. At their dad’s house they have scheduled sports and activities every single day of the week, and if they’re not engaged in their own activities, they’re sitting on the sidelines or benches watching each other’s. On weeknights they eat on the go, they don’t get home to start homework until late, and even the eight-year-old doesn’t go to bed until after ten. (She has always liked her sleep, so even she isn’t happy with that arrangement.)

In contrast (as you’ve probably already guessed from my photo line-up of things-for-families-to-do), ours is not a structured-schedule household of crammed-in structured activities. Part of the issue is financial–our income for this year will probably be about fifteen thousand, while their dad’s household income is into six figures.  But even aside from the sign-up fees, we prefer to spend our time with our kids rather than constantly driving-and-spectating for them. And the kids themselves are quite clear about the fact that they prefer it too.  Especially Elena Grace–she would happily drop all of her activities if she were allowed, and the first thing she said to me last Saturday morning (with a blissful grin) was, “I could read ALL DAY if I wanted to!”  Christian does enjoy his soccer (which only runs for eight weeks of the year) and is generally in favor of his karate class, but other activities (like cello lessons–he’s the tone-deaf one) only add stress. (And a heavy item to carry back and forth to school!)

family LOVE
the MAIN family-ingredient!

I was offered my previous summer position at the State Park by our house, but when I put it to a family vote, the decision was unanimous: they’d rather have ME for the summer than have more MONEY in the household.

When we made the family T-shirts for our backyard badminton tournaments, the fronts all said “Vega-Tyler Team,” because the two youngest kids have their dad’s last name. But last week when we were playing pirate and singing the “Pirate’s Life for Me,” Christian unexpectedly (and off-key, of course) substituted:”Yo ho, yo ho, a Tyler Life for Me!” We can’t buy them toys, we can’t take them to Disneyland, and we don’t even have television channels–but they prefer the Tyler way of life.

And for the record, so do WE.  The mom sitting next to Keoni at Christian’s soccer game last week was going on about all the different soccer games she had to get to that day, all at different locations. She wore her complaint like a badge of honor–and if her kids all want to be playing, then it is a sacrifice on her part to put that much mileage on herself… But we’re extremely grateful that’s not our life. We’re happy operating on “Island Time” and seeking our own adventures.


I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a few kinds-of-crazy, a joyful wife, a mom... a list-maker! :)

25 thoughts on “The Controversy of Kid-Calendars

  1. Excellent post (!) and relevant as I decide what activities to seek or not seek out during summer break for my two. Thanks for this :)


  2. So true. Kids don’t have time to play and when they do, they’re plugged in to something. This also means less time to connect with one another.


  3. Right on Kana. After an incredible adventure in a helicopter, and numerous other super luxe adventures, when asked what the best part of their summer was my kids always replied “Camping with Dad!”


  4. Excellent post! Too bad more parents don’t realize their kids would probably be happier with less structured activities and more family time. I’m so glad I grew up in the 60’s when we had lots of unstructured kid time to make up our own games and every time we ventured anywhere on our bicycles was an adventure.

    Kudos to you and Keoni for finding joy, adventure and wonder in both the world and in your backyard and for instilling that in your kids!


  5. It’s not my life either.. As kids we played outside rode our bikes, used our imaginations and I push my kids to do the same thing. I think to many kids miss our on a childhood due to parents trying to re-live their childhoods through their children’s lives. It saddens me. We do a lot together as a family. I wouldn’t trade my life for these busy mom’s lives and their miserable children for anything.


  6. I never had my own kids until I got married–now I have a 17-year-old stepdaughter, and she lives with her mother most of the time. But the craziness of kid-calendars still affects me as I lead the church youth group. Youth group is, of course, yet one more “activity,” but around here it always seems to take lowest priority when there’s dance practice or a soccer game or even a first job. I “get” it . . . sort of. But it wasn’t how I was raised (I was a pretty “involved” kid, but we only had one car and our school was 18 miles away, so AFTER-SCHOOL extra-curricular stuff rarely happened), and I completely applaud your approach.


  7. This is a great, great post, Kana. I think this, and I don’t even have kids–but if I did, I would come down firmly on the side of not structuring their time, firmly on the side of free play. Plus, you sound like an amazing mom. Love the things you do with your kids.


  8. A really good post.

    When I was seven, we moved to a small city with poor network TV reception, and my parents thought cable was an extravagance. So at night we played Scrabble and read. In warm weather, we sat in the yard and visited with the neighbors. Kids played outside after school and on weekends. I went to Brownies once a week and didn’t feel I lacked anything. My mother called the three years we lived there “the time we talked to one another.”

    I’ve read that when children played in unsupervised groups, they learned to make their own “rules” and direct their own activities. With today’s children in structured, adult-guided activities from daycare on, they’re not learning to make those decisions about how to play, and later work, together.

    And with such busy lives, when do they read? And think? And dream?


  9. This post is great! I enjoy how you work your opinions in with actual research material. :-). Really, as a mom of three, I have to admit I’ve done all of the above. I tried to do it all for years. Rushing here and there, both girls in Job’s Daughters, music lessons, dance lessons, and gymastics. Our son was somewhat easier, just Karate! Talk about financial stress!

    Even with all that going on though, while the kids were home, we ate dinner around the table together almost every night. We played board games together, video games, and talked about current events. We also took family camping trips where we could shut out the “stuff” and just be. Priceless times.

    Interesting what you say about the school situation. You know, Mesa is pretty white-bread, too. We have an enormous LDS community here (as I’m sure Boise does too) and it makes for a strange enironment to raise kids. I grew up near Los Angeles, in a very diverse public school system that I loved! For a short time, we lived in Virginia and my kids had the opportunity to attend schools where they were not the majority. I think it actually scared them at first, but in no time at all they’d embrassed the benefits that comes from a diverse community. Some of my friends back in AZ were mortified. :-) Still, I think my kids benefited tremendously from the two years we were there. And now, my youngest is in a high school in the “rough” side of town because that is where her honors program lives. She loves it there!

    Well… I’ve lost where I was really going with all that, but thanks for sharing, Kana!


  10. Awesome post, Kana! If I had been a mom, I’d have followed your vision. In fact, my step grandkids only get imagination fostering toys from me. (even jacks and birdhouse kits, paint and macrame instructions) Their rich grandma can give them the ipods, andipads and fancy electronic gizmos. I had a wonderful childhood filled with camping in the yard and sewing and crafting with my mom. It’s memories I wouldn’t trade for anything!


    1. Even when the kiddos were little, I had a “no batteries” rule for toys… (Of course, part of that was because *I* didn’t have the patience for all the electronic noise, LOL)


  11. Sam,
    Somehow I can’t believe that you’d be writing these words (or writing so WELL) had you spent your early years in a whirl of scheduled activities. Instead, you were always heads-together with Tracy, imagining your way in and out of other worlds. The actual landscape might have been potato cellars, irrigation canals, and backyard tents, but I know that the two of you were happily traveling in faraway lands. Thanks (again) for the memories.
    Yer Ma


  12. Yes, overworked parents and overwhelmed, frustrated kids. What a soup. I shudder when I remember talking to parents who come to work in the morning like they’ve never slept because of all the after school activities plus HOCKEY at 5:30 a.m. What about the KIDS? What kind of shape does that put them in.

    Fabulous reading this post plus I LOVE your pictorials.


  13. I truly appreciate all the care and research you put into this post, Kana! I myself made some mistakes “over-scheduling” my own two children growing up. I really had little respect for myself as a role model and thought my children needed a variety of other adult role models in their lives. Judging but what wonderful adults they are now, I must have been partially correct! However, they developed excellent skills at letting me know when enough was enough! My son and daughter-in-law are now making very balanced decisions about how “busy” the two grandchildren need to be and how much free time is needed. The older I get, the more I understand the need for balance and moderation in all things.


  14. God bless you and yours, really. I’m so thankful that I was never a parent for many reasons, but this competitive mania is a small part of it. What your family does is actually *sane* in my book, and I have a feeling your kids will be in therapy much less as adults than their over-scheduled peers.


  15. Great post! I think as long as the activities you’re tracking for your child are ones that they truly enjoy doing or like trying out, then go for a packed schedule. Kids are quick to say when they no longer want to do something. As for pre-paid activities for the season, it’s a good lesson to teach kids to follow through with commitments or giving activities more than one chance to see if they like it.


    1. Very true! I’d just urge parents to LISTEN when their kids say “enough” (at least once the initial commitment is fulfilled)… I’m thinking of my daughter, who wants OUT of the karate she got signed up for at age six–but her dad evidently doesn’t consider two years a long enough term of commitment…


    1. LOL this is hilarious and I’m so teemtpd to send this to my SIL. We had a huge blow up in regards to feeding my dd and she spouted off all the education she has had in Elementary education (she is a school teacher). I don’t have a degree but I have been taking of children since I was 12 which makes over 20 years of experience. Even than I can say being a teacher is a lot different than being a parent. I hope she becomes a parent one day and realizes there is a difference between being a teacher and being a mother.


  16. Right on! Just today my girls and I had hit up a small town rummage. While driving through each different neighborhood and looking over all the stuff folks were trying to sell I told them to remember two words. Travel light. Don’t spend your life trying to have stuff. Spend your life making relationships and memories.


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