A little more than a year ago, I wrote that I believe the prevalent notion of the “overscheduled child” to be a myth. It’s not that children aren’t overscheduled; many of them are (at least in suburban and wealthier urban communities where children have many extracurricular opportunities and parents can afford them). The myth, I argued, is that children’s schedules are packed to the limit by anxious parents who want our children to get into the best colleges and be prepared for a life of achievement. The norm in my community, and in my family, is that children’s schedules are full because the children choose to take on activities that are meaningful to them. My kids, for example, all love music, so our after-school hours are full of choir rehearsals and instrument lessons. In other families, children might gravitate toward sports or art. The primary dynamic I see is parents who want to help our children do what they love, as time and money allow.
I stand by this conclusion, but boy oh boy, my children’s schedule this fall is kicking my butt. I have three kids, each of whom does about three extracurricular activities—all activities that they have asked to do, and that they can quit if they want to. They don’t want to quit. So we have an awful lot of lessons and rehearsals and clinics and workshops to pack into the family’s schedule.
I am feeling frazzled as a result. Stuck in the minivan for several hours most afternoons coordinating an intricate schedule of drop-offs and pick-ups. Overseeing evenings of homework and music practice and line memorization while making and cleaning up from dinner and making lunches for the next day. Struggling to string several coherent thoughts together to post here because of all the little household chores that need doing but that I can’t get done between the hours of 3 and 6, when I’m a snack-providing taxi cab for the kids.
I begin to wonder if it’s worth it, all of the expense and effort.
And day after hectic day, week after jampacked week, I decide that yes, it is. We don’t care whether our kids get into an Ivy League or other prestigious college some day. We care that they learn to know themselves, do their best, and learn from their mistakes. We care that they become contributing members of healthy communities. We care that they have a light in their eyes and a bounce in their step more often than not. The activities they’ve chosen allow all those things to happen, and more.
But it’s hard to make it all work. We are fortunate that my schedule is flexible so I can be available after school. We do not have unlimited time and money. At this point, when one of the kids mentions some activity he/she finds interesting, my standard answer is, “You can’t take on anything else new right now. There will be chances for you to try new things and stop doing other things, but not now.”
In the evenings, once everyone is settled into bed with a book, I am retreating with my own book. My latest find is Louise Penny’s mysteries set in a small village in Quebec. Her most recent mystery, How the Light Gets In, refers to Leonard Cohen’s beautiful Anthem lyrics:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
Our family’s life feels kind of cracked these days, fragmented, as kids go in various directions. I feel a little cracked, brittle, my head too full of other people’s priorities and tired of the constant going from one thing to the next. But I continue to see light coming through those cracks—the light in Leah’s voice when she talks about singing at church, the latest youth group adventure, or training the new kids at 4H how to clean the chickens’ cages; the light in Benjamin’s eyes when he finishes up with play rehearsal or demonstrates “Ode to Joy” on the piano; the light of Meg’s excitement that her poem was picked to be read in front of the whole school and that orchestra practice starts tomorrow. These are not children driven to achievement by anxious parents. These are children figuring out what they love to do (and are good at), and lucky enough to be able to do it.
My offering to my kids—of my time, my driving skills, my snacks, my meals, my guidance—is far from perfect. It can be hurried and half-hearted and weary. Cracked, for sure. But each evening as I go to bed, grateful that all the small ones in my care are once again satisfied and safe and at rest, I feel sure that enough light made it through the cracks that it’s all worth doing again tomorrow. Maybe I’ll change my mind one day, decide that we are indeed dangerously overscheduled. But not yet.
(For a related take on overscheduled kids, read this New York Times article, which argues that it’s fine for kids to have lots on their plates, as long as parents and kids aren’t too wrapped up in how well they do, and they also have a good amount of unscheduled time. I think my family is doing okay on both counts; we’re more likely to temper our kids’ high expectations for themselves than impose our own, and Friday afternoon through Sunday evening still has several chunks of time when no one has to be anywhere in particular.)