I was asked this week to comment for a national current affairs TV program about how much is too much when it comes to children's extra-curricular activities.
With the ABC show Frantic Family Rescue airing at the moment, the topic is certainly a hot one.
We know from studies in the US and Canada, that regardless of the type of activities or the cost, when children are involved in a variety of pastimes over a number of years, they do reap lifelong rewards.
However in making decisions about which activities are right for our kids and how many they can manage, what sorts of things do we need to factor in to make sure it is rewarding?
It's the ultimate Goldilocks parenting challenge really, to determine which recipe is 'just right' for our kids and our family.
Firstly I would encourage every parent to really step back and consider whether each activity is driven by the child or the parent. Research shows clearly that if driven by parents, the benefits disappear.
That makes me feel a lot better about not pushing my four surf-loving lads into those dance and drama classes I wanted just one of them to take.
So what else do we need to consider:
Is it too much, too soon? In the early years, particularly up to 8, it is very easy for kids to get overloaded and they're still developing their capacity to self-regulate. As it is, there is so much going on in our modern world that kids quite often suffer from invisible stress. Taking on too much at this age might impact them negatively. Lots of unstructured free play — especially in nature — should definitely be part of your schedule.
If you have a high-energy, driven child, they are probably going to be able to manage a lot more activities than the more sensitive, lamb like child. What works for one won't work for the other so there's no point comparing your dreamy, quiet child to little Jenny down the road who does ballet and kung fu and conversational Mandarin in the evenings and swim squad training four mornings a week — and still gets straight As. Make sure the activity level matches your child's temperament and energy levels.
Time of year
We've all got more energy in summer. In winter, though, when it's freezing and we're getting home in the dark, it can leave us feeling a bit like pushing a barrow up a hill trying to get everything done before bedtime. We also get more coughs and colds in winter. Adjust your activities seasonally.
What's happening at school? If your child is in Year 12, clearly they're going to be under a lot of pressure academically. Similarly for Year 3, 5, 7 and 9 students, what month is NAPLAN happening? Kids can feel overloaded by the pressures of this standardised test (an unnecessary evil in my opinion) so maybe ease off activities until it's all over.
Sharing the load
Getting to and from all of your kids' various activities can be half the battle. If your family has so much on that you find you are constantly rushing to get to activities, then that's putting more pressure on everyone. Can you car pool with other families in your community to make it much more achievable?
Impact on parents
How is the activity load impacting on the key parent who is doing the bulk of this running around? If you're getting home, trying to get a healthy meal on the table pretty quick, and then there's homework, and you want the kids to get themselves bathed and ready for bed — if all this is turning you into a wailing banshee in order to get things done, is it worth it? This stress can impact on our relationship with our kids and partners — and have long-term effects.
If your kids are old enough and they do have the energy and drive to do lots activities, then ask them to help out more at home to make the activities possible. That might mean having quicker showers to get to bed early enough, helping with dinner or cleaning up.
Extra activities can be financially, physically and emotionally draining, and kids need to appreciate parent effort, and see these opportunities as a privilege, not a right.
We all want our kids to be able to find their special gifts and talents, and to give them every opportunity we can, however we must remember that every child is unique and getting it just right takes effort.
Feel free to step off the hamster wheel from time to time and choose the things your kids really love the most and just do those. After all they're the things they are going to get the most benefit from. And every family could surely benefit from a few quiet afternoons and evenings. I am sure Goldilocks would agree.