My husband and I decided long ago that we wouldn’t let our lives be ruled by extracurriculars. Yet my four kids, who range in age from kindergartener to teen, still come home with plenty of flyers—and oh the e-mails we get—about “opportunities” to make their lives better. They will become smarter, more athletic, or more creative if we will simply pay (usually a hefty) fee and enroll them in adult-orchestrated activities.
These include sports, clubs, classes, organizations, and even junior committees. They can learn a new language, build robots, code, earn badges, and much more. There’s no shortage of possibilities when you live in suburbia—and parents take a lot of pride in rattling off how “busy” they are every single night of the week and all weekend long, too.
I have no doubt that each of these can teach kids valuable lessons and provide parents with some respite. Teamwork, for example, is best taught in a team (duh) environment. Many of these opportunities encourage kids to be more giving, patient, and open-minded. Of course, these traits are important—but let’s not pretend that the only way kids will grow up to be wholesome, respectful adults is if they are in nonstop extracurriculars.
Our decision to limit our children’s participation is based on our belief that our health should be our number one priority. We see family dinners, which have been proven to do wonders for mental health, as a time to catch up with one another, problem-solve, and enjoy a meal together. They don’t work out every night, but they do happen most evenings. Then there are the general benefits of downtime and a great night’s rest. Plus, every evening, we spend one-on-one time with our kids at bedtime: playing games, reading books, and talking.
We also want them to have the opportunity to simply be bored! Boredom fosters creativity—and kids (and adults) need time to just chill out and think. Because every waking minute of their day isn’t filled with activities, my kids actually have time to read a book, draw, build with Legos, or hang out with one another.
That doesn’t mean we’re against them altogether. We attempt to strike a balance between not too much and not too little. We don’t have hard-and-fast rules about how many extracurriculars our kids can be in, though we tend to rotate based on interest. One of my kids loves basketball—a winter sport—whereas in spring, we prioritize track. My son’s martial arts takes place immediately after school, two days a week. My youngest, desperate to play soccer, took a short class over the summer.
Limiting their options just teaches them to prioritize: What do they truly want to do versus what’s sort-of-maybe interesting and fleeting? What needs to be an extracurricular, and what can be learned through a book, online class, or video? We encourage our kids to try new things, but we never push them to make a youth career out of one activity. Variety is the spice of life, right?
They’ve also learned to prioritize themselves, at times, and one another, at others. Sometimes their job is to show up to their sibling’s game and cheer them on. Each kid isn’t always the star of the show—an important lesson.
I’m also ever-mindful that enrolling kids in many extracurriculars, or even one, is steeped in privilege. After all, there’s the cost of signing up, plus transportation, time, and (almost always) extra gear or supplies they need to participate. It’s a suburban belief that “good kids” have enrichment activities, when, in truth, they’re for those who can afford it.
We have given ourselves parental permission to enjoy the time we have with our kids and not make extracurriculars the dictators of our lives. They can be absolutely wonderful, and if an activity is doable and affordable, we say “yes.” But there are plenty of reasons to say no to overscheduling our family. Extracurriculars are just that: extra. They should be bonuses, not obligations.