Competition and Activities v. Family Time

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Thursday, March 28, 2002

Competition and Activities v. Family Time
By Heide Seward, Research Fellow

Time was when the very definition of “childhood” included a recognition of the need for leisurely play time-spontaneous touch football or baseball games on the neighborhood vacant lot, impromptu fishing excursions, hide-and-seek, after-school visits to a friend’s house. For some of us, summertime meant whole days of unstructured-and largely unsupervised-play, especially in our early years. We even complained of being bored at times, often to our parents’ exasperation. But it gave us the chance to make friends and to develop a sense of independence and self-confidence that even the so-called “experts” agree is necessary to children’s development. These days, however, some children have schedules that rival those of the busiest adults and that often allow little time for family activities, unscheduled or otherwise. Sports activities, art classes, dance classes, music lessons, swimming lessons, birthday parties-you name it. The image of the “soccer mom,” chauffeuring her children from activity to activity has become an American icon. Even preschoolers don’t just play with one another any more; they have “play dates.” And some school districts have eliminated the time-honored tradition of recess from school schedules in favor of supervised academic or other activities. Even church activities can mean yet another layer of activities that compete with family time. The family dinner hour has become a relic of the past in many homes. Of course, these days safety is a major reason why parents want structured, supervised activities for their children-understandably so. But maybe it’s time to rediscover the value of leisure for our children, by finding ways both to keep them safe and to provide unstructured, unsupervised play time

Parents in the town of Ridgewood, New Jersey, decided that enough was enough, and set out to declare a night off for the town’s families-no school or other activities, no homework, no appointments. It took seven months of planning, but on Tuesday of this week they observed “Ridgewood Family Night-Ready, Set, Relax.” According to an Associated Press (AP) article on the subject, the idea began when Marcia Marra, a mother of three, became frustrated at the dwindling amount of time her family was spending together. She and other Ridgewood residents considered several options before finally deciding that the most appropriate response to their dilemma was to plan a night with nothing to do. They formed a committee to plan and publicize the [non-]event. With the cooperation of school and sports officials in town, and the help of a local marketing firm, they succeeded in giving local families an official night off. The idea caught on in nearby Bergenfield, N.J., too. Residents there are also participating.

The writer of the AP article interviewed child psychologist Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, co-author (with Nicole Wise) of The Over-Scheduled Child, who praised the idea and expressed the wish that it would catch on elsewhere. Dr. Rosenfeld describes how our extremely competitive, results-driven modern society has lead many well-meaning parents to believe that they must leave no stone unturned in their quest to give their children the skills they need to succeed in life. As a result, they often treat child-rearing as yet another professional activity, what he calls, “hyper-parenting.” In their desire to see their children excel, they sometimes push even preschoolers to participate in every possible activity aimed at their personal “enrichment.” Yet, as Dr. Rosenfeld says, ” what matters for the long run are not activities and possessions, but character and relationships.” Even for children who seem to thrive on such a pace, over-scheduling can rob them and their parents of the leisure time they need-to develop relationships with each other and with peers, to create, to simply relax and reflect.

The residents of Ridgewood are on to something here. There is more to life than achieving the next goal or winning the next game. Both children and parents need some unscheduled time to themselves and with each other in order to develop their own inner lives and their relationships with each other.

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