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How Kids Can Make the Most of Free Time

How one woman learned to help her child get the most out of her extracurricular activities.

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How Kids Can Make the Most of Free TimeThinkstock

My daughter was a shy child, not a joiner. My memories of her early years involve me gently urging her to try group activities, like bouncing teddies in a parachute with other kids at playgroup or joining in on a rendition of “I’m a Little Teapot.” When she was four, she attended her first class in the local gymnastic club’s recreational program. She was hooked, and each week she ran onto the mat to line up with the others. I watched, elated. She loved her lessons, and I loved taking her, even though riding two buses to get there was a weekly slog. When she showed friends what she could do, she radiated pride.

Two years later, a new teacher took over. It felt like a bad fit from the start. She was a perfectionist, and I chafed when she complained audibly about my daughter’s sloppy form. The harder she pushed, the less motivated my kid was. I decided to chat with the teacher after one class and thought I saw something in her face: she didn’t like my daughter. I didn’t want to swoop in to save the day, but I could see the joy draining from the experience. I didn’t renew for the next term.

The decision haunted me for years. I suggested rejoining a later session, but my daughter quietly declined. Then, one day when she was about 13, she exclaimed out of the blue: “I wanted to stay in that gymnastics class! I never wanted to quit!” 

I was devastated. Had I misread the situation? Did I keep my daughter from working it out on her own terms? I shared my worries with Jennifer Kolari, a child and family therapist and the author of Connected Parenting. “You have to respect that she doesn’t want to do all the things you want to do,” Kolari told me. “But she’s got to do something because sitting at home isn’t such a great idea.” 

As we talked, I realized I’d discounted all the activities my daughter pursued on her own. She taught herself to knit at age eight and quickly surpassed me in skill. She learned to sew-not just zippered bags but entire outfits with epaul­ettes and tulle. She has a brilliant math brain and can design objects on AutoCAD. Her talents always impressed me, so why did I obsess about group activities?

If there’s one truth to the hyper-scheduled child archetype, it’s that parents invest a lot of themselves in their kids’ activities. Whether or not we admit it, our kids’ interests reflect on the job we’re doing as parents. My stress over my daughter quitting gymnastics was rooted in worry that she wouldn’t connect with other kids in group settings. Kolari says that a little adversity is healthy for kids. My intervention in her gymnastics class didn’t serve her. “You can look back and think, What else could she have learned? Were there some things she could have benefited from?” Those words were hard to hear. There was an opportunity there for my kid to work through her discomfort, and I didn’t let her have it.

I did make one rule when my daughter reached high school: she had to take a music class. I wanted her to experience collaboration, the rush of making music with others. Right around that time, she picked up a friend’s bass guitar. She spent Grade 9 in the basement, with dim light and bad posture, fastidiously working out the complex bass lines of Billy Talent songs. She joined a band and learned drums, then guitar. None of this-even waking up early for practice-required my prodding.

I’ll never quite know if I over-parented in that gymnastics moment or if I should have been more insistent with my daughter all along. “If your child is staying home because they’re afraid of failure, it’s worth pushing them,” Kolari says. “If your child is really busy, social and not anxious-they just don’t want to do anything-then staying home isn’t a coping mechanism; it’s who they are.” In the end, the gymnastics question remained unanswerable; my teenager doesn’t remember any of it. And she’s killer on guitar.

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The Overscheduled Child Myth

Research doesn’t necessarily back up the idea of the hyper-scheduled child that has captured public imagination. One study, led by Yale University psychologist Joseph Mahoney in 2006, showed most children spend less than 10 hours a week in organized activities, with just three to six per cent spending 20 hours or more. 

Participation of up to 10 hours a week in extracurriculars led to positive outcomes, including greater self-esteem, relationship-building skills, stronger social bonds and an overall sense of purpose. For school-aged kids, an average of five hours a week is a good benchmark.

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Commitment Issues

It can be tough to gauge a child’s commitment to an activity. Family therapist Jennifer Kolari advises choosing one must-do activity that they’ve got to see through to the end of each term, regardless of rough patches. “You’re showing your kids tenacity,” she says.

Consider your child’s age, too. “Before the teenage years, the ability to see the big picture just isn’t there yet, developmentally,” Kolari says. Don’t take things too seriously if there’s a bit of whining. If they’re really struggling, put aside your priorities and hear them out.