Let Them Play

By Lewis Cohen
Issue 103, November/December 2000

Father and child playingJust recently, my ten-year-old daughter disclosed to me, almost tearfully, that she was feeling as if she had “too many things to do.” With the adult responsibilities of parenting, marriage, a full-time job, and the myriad other obligations of everyday life, I often feel that way myself. Yet it seemed terribly wrong that my youngster should be feeling stressed out. Kids should be having fun, right? But after sitting down and examining her weekly routine, I understood all too clearly why she felt the way she did.

Mondays and Wednesdays, religious school; Tuesdays and Saturdays, gymnastics; Fridays, piano lessons (and, ideally, 30 minutes of practicing each day); Sundays, religious school again. During soccer season, there’s practice early Saturday mornings with a dozen or so sleepy girls, their dream-glazed eyes and minds not yet sufficiently awake to take instruction about the virtues of teamwork; Sunday afternoons, the games. When the softball season arrives, it’s weekend practices and one or two games during the week in the late afternoon. Every other Friday is Girl Scouts, where time-consuming projects abound in the name of community service. All this in addition to school and its accompanying daily homework, various long-term assignments (book reports, science fair, etc.), and extracurricular activities (instrumental music lessons, band practice, school newspaper).

This is our daughter’s schedule, daunting even for an adult, let alone a child. But here in our suburb this is run of the mill; relatively speaking, it’s not even that busy. After all, she does have Thursdays free from 3:00 p.m. on.

Speaking with friends who live in other parts of the country, in both suburbs and cities, I’ve discovered that this phenomenon is not unique to our neck of the woods. Behind every overextended son or daughter, it seems, is an overextended parent. “My kids barely have time to breathe,” they say, followed by, “I feel like I live in the car, constantly driving my children from one scheduled activity to another.”

These are primarily the voices of mothers, for the most part the ones still responsible for child care (traditions do die hard). But as a father who has always been the primary childcare provider in our family (my job allows me flextime–my wife’s doesn’t), I understand exactly what these moms mean.

On a typical day, I, too, feel as though I am constantly on the run and frazzled by my daughter’s exhausting agenda, shuttling her–and sometimes her friends in this car-pool culture–from one part of town to another, making sure she gets her homework done and practices Bach’s “Minuet in G” between arriving home from Hebrew school and sitting down for dinner.

What about Play?
Why do we foster this frenetic existence? I am not certain, but I suppose it has something to do with our desire to be “good parents.” We want our sons and daughters to experience as many things as they can. We want to give them, in Voltaire’s words, “the best of all possible worlds,” and we think this, in conjunction with a loving home, is one way to provide it. We don’t want them to miss anything for fear they will feel deprived–or that we will think they’re deprived.

But I worry about the stress factor. I know all too well my own reaction to overload–tightness in my neck, a banging headache, intermittent jolts of anxiety, and worst of all, that awful sense of loss of control. In the best of all possible worlds, no one should have to feel this way, least of all a child. We all know it’s unhealthy, that it can only lead to discontent. And there’s the irony–as devoted, loving parents, we permit (and encourage) our children to overburden their lives with too many activities, thinking it is the right thing to do, that it will make them happy, while the unfortunate result might be just the opposite. Acting in “good faith,” we may be contributing to our children’s unhappiness.

I’m not saying that our kids shouldn’t go to religious school, or take ballet classes, or join the softball team. But perhaps we need to slow them (and ourselves) down a bit, be less concerned with structuring their time, worry less that they are missing out. Maybe we should give them down time, periods set aside for nothing special with no goals, no purposes, no deadlines, and no sense of having to be there–just time for reading a book, listening to some favorite music, or simply going out to play.

As for our daughter, we’ve given her the option to give up some of her activities. She says she’s not sure she wants to do that. She’ll think about it, she tells us. We’re thinking about it, too.

In the meantime, the registration form for the local lacrosse league sits on our kitchen table.

Lewis Cohen was a stay-at-home father while his daughter was an infant and now works full time at a community college, where his flexible hours allow him to be the primary child-care provider. His daughter is now 12 years old. Since he wrote this article two years ago, her schedule, though different in content, remains as daunting as ever.