Must Kids Be as Busy as You Keep Them?

I often meet people who have an obsessive need to keep their kids busy. Every spare moment must be filled! I wonder if it’s pressure to get into the top schools, or are the parents worried that they’ll become delinquents? But after taking a closer look, my experience suggests that too many parents are preoccupied with how their family looks to others. So much so, in fact, that it overshadows a healthy attention to how their child is actually thinking and feeling.

So how does a child’s busy schedule affect the family? It can take many forms: Mom might become a full-time taxi driver for the kids. Or dad rarely gets to interact with them. Or family mealtimes and gatherings take second place to extracurricular activities for the kids, the parents or both. In a healthy family, the parents should carve out time to impart to their children the intellectual and psychological tools for becoming self-confident. If the  parents’ career(s) and maintaining the right environment for the children conflict (and to some degree they usually do), then one parent simply has to slow down and give the children the time they need, at least in the first five to ten years of their lives.

Of course, financial climates fluctuate, and clients ask me how parents can cut back without having the child miss out on beloved hobbies, sports, etc. Part of encouraging a good intellectual and psychological atmosphere means a “quality over quantity” mentality. Rather than trying to do too many things just to say you did them, the goal instead becomes a few activities done well.

The healthier the atmosphere created by the parents, the more likely the child will want to stay reasonably busy with different productive activities. Some students work hard in school to avoid shaming themselves or their family; others work in order to achieve and accomplish. The second option carries a lot less baggage. The basic difference between compulsive activity and healthy activity is, in unhealthy activity the child or adult feels, “In order to be a good person, I must do this (or that). Unless I do these things, I’m not good.” In healthy activity, the child or adult feels (in so many words), “I’m a good and capable person, and I should do stimulating and challenging activities that I like. I deserve that confidence and happiness.”

Another subject that comes up in my office is the benefit of just “vegging out.” Children, like everybody else, need down time. I reject the literal concept of “vegging out” because it implies that the mind has to be blank or unfocused – something that neither children nor adults need. What children do need is mental “refueling” time. “Refueling” consists of using your mind, but in a different way than you would at school or at work. To take a break from, say, your math homework, you might watch a good movie. The movie should stimulate thought as well as entertain. You’re still using your mind, but in a different way.

Physical activity is also important. Healthy, creative play requires imagination and abstract thinking. Have your children tell stories. Make up (solvable) mysteries for them to unravel. Have them build things with Legos or other toys. Encourage invention and creativity, not just passive reaction to momentary flashes on a TV or computer screen. Reading, alone or with a parent, is absolutely crucial, not only to develop basic skills but also to cultivate thinking and analytical reasoning. Children need to be taught, or rather, shown, that learning and education can be fun. Knowledge is power over one’s destiny and life. It’s serious business, but it also feels good.

If you are a parent, take responsibility for creating a healthy psychological and intellectual atmosphere for your children. Show them they have minds, and show them how to use them. Don’t entrust this sacred responsibility to outsiders alone. Schools cannot and will not do it. And it’s not the number of activities that are important; it’s the quality of those activities.


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