Heart to Heart: Parenting Conversations: Activity involvement

In how many activities should my children be involved?

How can we as parents help our children achieve balance in their lives? How much is too much when it comes to extracurriculars? How much is too little? Is there such a thing as too little involvement? How can you help your children make wise choices about their activities? This month’s Heart to Heart authors give us their perspectives—and plenty of things to think about.

I’m happy to share some thoughts on how my family has adjusted to the myriad of activities and opportunities for our kids. First, though, I want to point out that I believe every family is different and there are no right or wrong answers. I can’t recall ever hearing a magical number of activities that are recommended or required for kids. I think we can all agree that the number of options for activities has exploded.

Back when I was a kid in elementary school, it seemed my athletic options were basketball and softball. I also played baseball in a community league. The only other activity or group option that I can recall was Lutheran Pioneers or Buckaroos. I rarely remember having practices for my teams in grade school. I’m sure we had some, but I really don’t think they were three nights a week.

Now we could fill this page with nothing but structured activity options through school, church, the community, summer sports camps, etc. Our temptation as parents, and on the part of our kids, is to be involved in more than we can handle. Perhaps there is even a bit of worry as parents that if our children are not taking advantage of the plethora of activities that other families are, maybe our kids won’t grow up as well-rounded adults.

Good friends just signed their son up for the community lacrosse team. Now that sounds fun! I didn’t even know that opportunity existed. Should I mention that to my son?

With no easy answers, how do we make decisions on activities? To be honest, my wife’s and my efforts usually fall on trying to limit participation rather than having our kids overinvolved. Here are a couple priorities we try to keep in mind.

Priority #1: Love

Probably the most important thing we have tried to do is make it clear to our kids that their participation and success in any activity is not something they need to do to get our love. God’s love for us through his Son is unconditional. We don’t need to perform—or be the best—in order to receive God’s love. What we do as Christians is simply a demonstration of our love for God. So in that light of Christian joy and freedom, priority #1 is that the activities the kids choose can be seen as other ways to show love for God and not ways to win Mom and Dad’s approval. That comes free!

Priority #2: Balance

This can get tricky. As adults it seems balance in life can be hard to find, and our own activities and responsibilities feel overwhelming at times. If our kids watch us closely and learn from us, what are we teaching them? Are we teaching them to live a balanced life or a life filled with stress and anxiety? What’s the lesson as we move hastily from one thing to the next, getting short and angry with one another because we always feel late and behind?

I think family balance is important. People tell us that the times when the kids are young will go by fast. I definitely agree! Our family needs time. We need time simply to be together, go for a bike ride, watch a movie, and even do some chores together. (Well, maybe I wish we’d do more chores together!) This is time just to be with one another and nurture our relationships. It’s the time needed to teach and show them God’s love. If the outside activities infringe on the family connectedness, then it’s time for us to pull back.

Looking back in my life, with comparatively few activity options, what did I do with all my time? I wasn’t bored. I have great memories of participating in unstructured activities with friends and family. I’m certainly not calling for us to bring back the “good ‘ole days.” I think all the varied activities offered now are amazing, but developing a few simple priorities has helped our family maintain balance.

Dan Nommensen and his wife, Kelly, have a daughter and a son.

We have the same conversation with other parents about the same age about 12 times a summer: “Remember when we were kids? Our moms pushed us out the door after breakfast, and we didn’t come back in until the streetlights came on.”

You can hear us rehearsing this back-in-the-day shtick while sitting at our seventh soccer game of the week, trying to figure out who can take the boys to swimming tomorrow so we can get the girls to dance. Childhood is just different now. Parent-scheduled. Parent-coached. Parent-spectated.

I’m writing this in mid-June, in the interlude between my stepson’s morning baseball practice and afternoon basketball camp. He’ll just have time to eat lunch, play 10 minutes of piano, change from cleat to court shoe, and leave a quarter-cup of the baseball diamond on the carpet before we head to the gym. After basketball, he’ll eat dinner in the car as we drive an hour to a baseball game—one of his three leagues this summer.

As you’re reading this, school is starting, and I bet your schedule’s even crazier. Choir. Band. Math team. Forensics. Soccer. Oh, yeah—and school.

Having only one child to transport at the moment, I shake my head in wonder at the family of eight. Many questions come to mind, all of them variations of, “Is this crazy or what?”

Story: This summer I asked why Billy Schmidt wasn’t playing baseball. Someone explained that the Schmidts went camping on weekends. I’m ashamed to admit that while my mouth said, “Oh, that’s nice,” my mind said, “But Billy’s such a great hitter!”

Another story: Years ago, a dad brought his daughter to her first flute lesson with me. He said, “She probably won’t practice much, but that’s fine with us.” I concentrated on keeping my eyebrows in place. What? They’ll pay for lessons and a fine musical instrument, but they don’t care whether she practices? What about self-discipline? Commitment? Stewardship of God’s gifts?

Years later I think those parents were on to something.

How busy should kids be? That depends on your view of childhood. Which of these sound right to you?

• Kids should dip their toes into many activities—from music to drama to sports to chess.

• Kids should choose just a few activities and fully commit to them.

• Kids should be busy and challenged.

• Kids should just have fun.okay.

And more specifically about each of your kids:

• This kid needs reining in, because she’ll sign up for everything and then whine all year.

• This kid needs a nudge because he’ll play Xbox all day if left to his own devices (no pun intended).

• This kid’s a dabbler, not a committer, and that’s wrong. Or is it?

• This kid only likes the social aspect of teams, which makes sports a waste of time and money. Or does it?

• This kid would do nothing but read, so we need to get her out more. Or do we?

Maybe the ultimate question is this:

• What’s our goal—raising healthy, successful 12-year-olds or healthy, successful 35-year-olds? And how does our answer to that question change our perspective on today’s baseball game or piano recital?

What if we asked the kids? Maybe on that hour-long trip to the game, we could have a discussion—one where we don’t give our opinions at all; we just listen to theirs.

1. What’s your favorite team or club? What do you like about it?
2. What’s your least favorite? What do you dislike about it?
3. Are you doing any of these activities because you think other people—your friends, teachers, or parents—want you to do them?
4. Do we support you enough—driving, watching, cheering, encouraging you, etc.?
5. Do we ever embarrass you at an event? How?
6. Do we ever pressure you too much? How?
7. If you could make one change to your schedule of activities, what would it be?

Our kids are pretty insightful. Their answers might surprise us.

Truth is, I don’t know what’s right for your family. I seldom know what’s right for mine, so I’m not going to judge you.

Maybe the important thing is, whatever we decide, we do so consciously. We don’t thoughtlessly sign every form that comes home in the backpack. And we don’t project our own childhood fantasies onto our kids—not to mention our dreams for their Division I scholarships or the New York Philharmonic.

I’d like to say more, but it’s time for basketball camp. And that quarter-cup of baseball diamond on the carpet won’t vacuum itself.

Laurie Gauger-Hested and her husband, Michael, have a blended family that includes her two 20-somethings and his preteen son.



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Author: Multiple
Volume 102, Number 9
Issue: September 2015

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