I am not a sit on the couch watching television kind of person. I watch a show in the evenings with my husband, but if I have to sit for more than an hour, I need to be doing something else, like riding my stationary bike, while I watch. My kids are just like me in that respect. If we have a whole day in the house with nothing to do, something is catching on fire.
Take this morning for example. I was excited for our lazy Saturday morning, but after two hours of sitting in the house, it looks like we were robbed. The house is trashed, and the kids are screaming about being bored. They come up with their own solution. "Can we go to open gym?" Open gym is a two-hour extra tumbling practice that is open to anyone that wants to come and learn new tumbling tricks, or work on ones that they have already learned. So we all get dressed and head to the gym.
The whole drive there I start having what has become a common debate in my mind – how much gym time is too much?
We spend four days a week in the gym, on a good week. Before competitions, when extra practices are added, it goes up from there. And that's not counting when we decide to come to open gyms, or free tumble, or specialized clinics. I am thrilled that my kids love their chosen sport. I am also plagued with worries about them specializing too quickly, taxing their little muscles, and not getting to experience things outside of the gym.
To compound that problem, the sport my kids want to do has prerequisites and skills that they have to get first. They want a back tuck, but you can't learn that trick without years of working on strength, cartwheels, back handsprings, and things like that. There are no short cuts to getting there, with less time in the gym, because it is not safe.
If that's not enough, everything else they want to do also has a bunch of prerequisites. My baby wanted to learn contemporary dancing, but can't because you have to have two full years of ballet to enroll in contemporary. We had to add ballet, which she doesn't really like, so that a year from now she can try something she wants to try. My oldest wanted to try ice skating, but apparently we started that late, and as a result, she was in the beginner's class with *gasp* her little sister, rather than the class with the rest of her friends. That was short lived.
So what do I do when my kids want to specialize in a sport that requires a lot of time in the gym, and I want them to be well rounded? I add violin and piano and dance and volleyball and basketball and karate and religion class and acting camp and math facts drills and Lego workshop to those four days a week in the gym.
This is not a new phenomenon. My parents surely struggled with the same thing. I played an instrument and multiple sports while leading vacation bible school classes, and teaching Summerbridge, and getting straight A's. I grew up multi-tasking and expected that my kids would do the same. I was busy but I wasn't overly stressed.
I am not alone in this insanity as a parent either. Most of my kids' friends are in the same boat. They have multiple lessons and practices a week pilling onto the homework and long school days. The kids have tight schedules, but big smiles.
Until they don't.
For us, in December of last year I noticed that while my kids were still excited to go to all of their activities (except ballet), they were agitated while they were there. They cried or yelled when things didn't go their way. Every time they stressed out about a mistake, I realized that I had made one. We had too many things on our plate.
I thought about why we were doing all of the things that we were doing. It was all borne of what sounded fun to the kids, but we are all innately competitive people, and at some point fun became only a prerequisite to the goal of excelling at everything. So I made the very hard decision to drop all of the kids' activities except the competitive cheerleading that they love. The kids begged to keep hip hop because dropping that would affect the whole team, and they already understand the value of sticking with your commitments, especially if your decisions adversely affect the team. Plus they love it too.
I also made the equally hard decision that we weren't going to try to perfect everything. That hasn't gone so well because my kids are self-motivated, and if I won't stand and shout out the counts while they practice their routines, they'll just take turns and count for each other, or count for themselves. I hope, however, that my lack of joining in on the practice time at home (most of the time) sends them a signal that they don't have to practice if they don't want to. So far I haven't seen a drop in practice time at home.
This year I decided that we are getting out of the race to the top of the staircase to nowhere.
We are going to get "behind" in violin. I put behind in quotes because there is no real progression chart when you stop ascribing to the one the teacher gave you of where you should be when. My baby was just starting piano lessons, and she is not yet proficient at reading the notes. This year, she won't be able to. We aren't going to have all of the pre-reqs for contemporary dancing at the end of the year, and we may never get to try that as a result. "Everyone" is learning soccer while we're not. I bet though, that if my kids decide later that they want an instrument or an advanced dance class, or a new sport, they can pick it up then and not suffer too much.
If my kids aren't on the biggest, best teams, they'll live. And they'll still get to play the sports they love. If they work hard, but never make it to the Senior 4 cheer squad, that's okay. If they spend all day doing what they enjoy and never learn to master the violin, that's okay too. And if they specialize in competitive cheerleading for the first decade of their lives, and then decide they want to play soccer, they'll start at the very bottom of the soccer world and still get to play.
After dropping most of their activities, I was patting myself on the back. My kids were relaxed and calmer and happier in their practices…
Until they weren't.
Then I discovered that I hadn't learned everything yet.
With so many fewer activities, I noticed that my kids had lots of extra energy. They couldn't sleep as well at night. Without the extra social interactions, they were at each others' throats, and they've always gotten along really well. Television was teaching them awkward, if not bad, turns of phrases and attitudes (though it was funny watching them sit in the mirror to learn how to roll their eyes like a character on a Disney show.) Less everything wasn't exactly the answer for us either.
I read a lot of parenting books and articles. There are as many on the value of specializing in a sport at a young age as there are in the perils of doing so. In my experience and research, no one has cracked the code of how much is too much and how little is too little…when are the kids overstimulated and when are they truly bored and wasting the only time in their lives that trying aerial silks is an option.
Now I know the answer to how much is too much – there is no permanent, always true answer. It's not no days off, or two days off, or no activities at all. The answer is, look at your child and talk with them and see how they are feeling. It's okay for you, or them, to change their minds! Dropping a sport midseason isn't going to doom them to not understand the value of commitment, as long as they aren't doing it all the time and for no reason. What works for my family, might not work for others, and vice versa, and that's ok. Always remember, your child's activities are for fun and enrichment, and when that is not happening, you can try something else.