I'm saying no to structured after-school activities for my kids

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

There's always something we aren't doing, it seems. My school-age kids, who are seven and four, bring home shiny brochures every Friday, broadcasting the latest after-school programs all the cool kids are doing: hip-hop, soccer, flag football, drawing, Girl Scouts, horseback riding, clay-making, ukulele. And every Friday afternoon, I allow my two-year-old to shred the after-school brochures in her hands and relocate them to the trash.

We've participated in many of these classes, and they've been led by happy, capable teachers. And yet, when the day of any class arrives, I regret that we aren't just spending the evening at home.

The last ballet class my four-year-old took required a 40-minute drive in rush-hour traffic so she could jump over stuffed animals placed in the middle of a room. The ceramics class my oldest daughter was taking at the same time, in the same arts centre, yielded 10 spiky and fragile glazed projects, two of which broke as soon as we brought them home.

Both of my girls loved these classes. My oldest daughter has anxiety issues, and my middle daughter is deaf and has gross motor delays, so I framed these activities as child-chosen therapies that would give them tools they could use outside the classes. And there were benefits: I love their early exposure to the arts; I love the clay projects, and the self-worth that came with them; and I love the glowing pride my daughter with special needs shows when she leaps through the air.

But I need only look at my blood pressure at the end of each class to see the weightier downside of our after-school commitments: The kids are in an unleashed tizzy after a full day of paying attention in school and structured extracurriculars, no matter how much fun they have had; the two-year-old has reached her threshold for patience and one of her shoes is gone; I have nothing planned for dinner; and the traffic has reached a level of insanity.

The problem is that these activities are supplying my kids with lessons they don't need to learn at this point in their lives, on a strict schedule, and with monthly fees.

These activities do them no harm, but they increase my anxiety and limit my mobility, and the hours between four and 6pm are a time when I need to place my needs (decompressing after all the kids are home, starting dinner, pouring a glass of wine) ahead of the shortsighted desires of my young kids.

In the 1980s, when I was the age my children are now, I was chiselling the atrophying concrete in our driveway after school, or trying to jump a bike over slabs of wood my older brothers had dragged out from the garage. I remember going to the park without our parents or hiding in the side yards of strangers. I wasn't anxious, and neither were my parents. I don't remember being lured by company-sponsored anything, and my mum doesn't either.

We played on soccer teams that practiced down the street when we were in second or third grade, and I joined the neighbourhood swim team. Neither sport became competitive until we were in late middle school. At that point, we could choose to join club sports or opt out. I went with the latter. I just wanted to jump off the diving board with my friends. But it seems harder to be that kind of fun-loving, casual participant today. Our kids are encouraged to commit to things at a higher level of intensity, farther away from home, at a higher cost, before we can weigh the commitment, commute and money against the rest of the family's needs.

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When my oldest did gymnastics last spring, a mother sitting next to me on the bleachers asked me how many times a week I was coming to the gym. "Once a week," I said. And she replied, with obvious fatigue: "Just you wait. I'm here with my eight-year-old four days a week."

I decided, quietly, that gymnastics probably wasn't for us. In the car on the way home, I asked my daughter how she felt about gymnastics. "I'm really just doing it because I like the unitards," she said. We were passing a doughnut place, so I pulled in.

"Maybe it would be nice to have a doughnut on Saturday mornings instead of gymnastics," I said. She lit up, and it was unlike any expression I'd ever seen on her face at the gym. I'm not encouraging slovenliness and doughnut eating over healthy athleticism, of course; I'm advocating for life balance, which sometimes means sprinkles and giggling in a sticky booth instead of standing stick-straight on a beam.

I'm sure there are more Zen mums than me, who have calm drives and organised planners and who don't love cancelling as much as I do. But a recent Pew Research Centre survey reported two truths about the demographic that represents me: parents with higher incomes (above $75,000 a year) and higher education levels are more likely to report that their children participate in after-school activities; "meanwhile," the Pew report says, "these parents tend to worry about their children doing too much."

A lot of us put our kids in activities because other similar-aged kids are doing these activities. But the implied state of playing "keep up with the Joneses" is that we're pursuing an illusory ideal that exhausts us and that we'll never actually reach. Maybe even the Joneses are more tired than they seem.

The statistic above reveals a tension many parents like me are silently feeling while we play Uber driver and distracted audience member: We have a whole life of worthier sacrifices ahead of us, and we don't need to be prematurely, culturally cajoled into this. When I asked my mum what she thought, she said: "If you feel like you're doing too much, then you are."

This week, when the instructors of both of my girls' classes asked if we were signing up for the next session, I told them I'd think about it. I have, and the answer is no. We have clay in the closet and a wood floor in the family room, and the rest of my kids' lives will be rife with competition. For now, they can enjoy after-school activities like I did at this age: at home.

The Washington Post