In talking to parents this summer, one of the comments I have heard a lot is some theme or variation on how much better the children’s behavior is during the summer compared to the school year. In other words, children who have enough downtime and sleep and fewer demands put on them, are more likely to cheerfully and cooperatively engage in family life.
Children will be happier, healthier and more ready to learn with less hectic schedules and fewer demands put upon them. Here are some ways to create that for your kids.
1. Limit the Number of Hours Your Kids Are Involved in Extra Activities.
Sadly, the trend towards signing kids up for too many activities does not seem to be reversing in the way I had hoped. As I talk to parents and hear their kids’ schedule, I am dumbfounded by the sheer number of clubs, classes, teams, and extra tuition that kids are signed up for. Just hearing the schedule of these kids makes me stressed. And statistics on the increase of kids diagnosed with anxiety and depression show clearly that our kids are more stressed than they used to be.
Every activity added not only affects the child involved, it adds another level of complication to the family system. When signing your kids up for activities, take into account the additional time that activity adds. Are the soccer games in town or do they require a drive to another town? Is your child who professes to adore learning the ukulele going to practice it every night without complaint? Is it scouting which meets once a week but then adds many additional commitments?
Here are some creative solutions parents have found to minimize the logistics of their kids activities:
• 1 kid=3-4 sessions/events/week (2 kids=2-3 mtng times per kid/week;
3 kids 1-2 mtng times per kid/week
•Enroll kids in activities @ same time/place
•Play seasonal sports, no traveling teams
•Stack kids' activities on the same 2-3 days/week
•Exercise as a family (bike, swim, hike)
2. Limit the Amount of Time Your Kids Spend on Homework.
Keep in mind that the research does not support the efficacy of doing homework in the lower grades. Your school may be requiring it, but that is often because parents put pressure on schools to provide their children homework. Kids today are spending more minutes/day in school, and less of that is recess, lunch or PE time. They come home having exercised their brains six or more hours already. Now they need time to play, to relax and to make their own choices about how to spend their time (You can put limits on how much time they spend on electronics and still give them lots of choice about what to do).
Be an advocate for your child at school when it comes to no doing homework. If you feel you can’t cut it out completely, keep the amounts low. A respected limit is 10 minutes for a first grader, 20 minutes for a second grader etc. Sometimes parents will tell me, “My child is already behind at school. We have to do makeup work at home.” I disagree. If a child is working slower than other children, her teacher should make adjustments for her, so that she is getting a reasonable amount of work—one that she can finish at school—assigned to her. It is like overwatering a plant. Pouring more water on a plant when it already has more than it can absorb does not pass the common sense test. It will kill the plant; and in a child, it will kill of love of learning. What a waste.
3. Put Clear Boundaries Around Family Time
Society used to support families with clearer boundaries. Activities took place until around 5:00. The factory whistle went off, and half the community headed home to dinner. Bible study and city council meetings didn’t start until after the diner hour. People lived, worked and played in more homogeneous communities which meant whether it was Friday night Shabbat or Sunday morning mass, the chances were that your neighbor was busy at the same time.
Today, there is no time, no rhythm. It’s go, go, go. Employees are expected to take a call or answer a text at all hours; Children are kept up late so that they can have a violin lesson with the right teacher; and sports games are scheduled at all times of day, all days of the week. Society no longer gives us times with our family.
It is up to you to create a clear family culture—to send your kids the message that being together as a family is more important than all these other demands. Figure out what is going to be your family time—every Friday night and Sundays until 1:00? Every Saturday morning and Sundays after 4:00? These days, there is no clear time, so you just have to decide.
Once you have decided, it is up to you to teach your children the message that that time is Family Time. That means you won’t be playing baseball at that time; you won’t be attending a birthday party; you’ll be clear with your clients that you are not available; you will say no to even lovely invitations from another couple or family to meet for brunch; you will turn off personal electronics. You will be tempted to make exceptions; but I urge you to stand firm. Over time, you will send your child the absolutely clear message that while friends and classes and opportunities can all be meaningful and fun, they are not more important than being together as a family.
Establishing this clear connection as a family will give everyone a chance to slow down and appreciate the little things. Chores and projects will be tackled more readily as there will be a feeling of “We’re in this together.” Kids will settle into the rhythm of sitting and talking at the table longer. In my experience, kids are more willing to play games or take part in activities they might otherwise scoff at (like playing a board game or having a family ping pong match). Perhaps most importantly, it will remind you why you wanted to have a family in the first place, why you are working your tail off during the week.
When I ask adults to describe happy memories from childhood, nine times out of ten, they associate “happy childhood” with family time. I don’t tell them they cannot describe a goal they made or a play they were in. If they describe getting lost in a book or sitting with a drawing pad, it is still set within the context of knowing that their family was close by if they needed them (not across town or writing a work report1 on the computer).
What are you doing to reduce stress and increase connection in your family?