Wednesday 20 September 2017

Busy bees: how to manage after-school activities

Music lessons, sports practice, drama class - how much is too much for your kids? Kathy Donaghy asks how to find a balance

Right on schedule: Jennifer Casey with her kids Matthew (9) and Isabelle (5). Photo: Damien Eagers
Right on schedule: Jennifer Casey with her kids Matthew (9) and Isabelle (5). Photo: Damien Eagers

While some families flourish with a schedule that leaves very few evenings a week free, others find themselves frazzled by a seemingly endless stream of car journeys to after-school training sessions and lessons.

Many parents are torn on the issue of scheduling activities. On the one hand, there is the argument that too many activities simply stress kids out and leave them with no time to use their imaginations for creative play.

On the other hand, there are the health and well-being benefits that come from being involved in team sports and sports in general.

And with childhood obesity at epidemic proportions, parents are unsurprisingly keen to see their offspring on the football field or hockey pitch rather than sitting at home with a device in hand.

In her book How To Raise An Adult: Break Free Of The Overparenting Trap And Prepare Your Kids For Success, Julie Lythcott Haims, a former Dean at Stanford University in the US, prods at the heart of this parenting dilemma.

In her Ted Talk, which has been viewed over two million times, she argues that parents today are acting like their children's secretaries and concierges nagging them to ensure they achieve a level of perfection that the parent never achieved themselves.

She talks about how parents - wanting their child to "achieve" - leave no time for free play in the afternoons after school because every after-school activity is a make or break moment in this future parents have in mind for their children.

Yet we know that being part of team sports is great for kids' confidence as well as keeping them physically active in a time when children's activity levels are plummeting. Parents also naturally want their kids to try a broad range of activities to make sure their talents and strengths are harnessed. What parent could argue with a child enjoying burning off steam on the race track or being part of a team that allows each individual to shine in their own unique way?

Mum-of-four Jennifer Casey from Knocklyon in Dublin says her family thrives on a busy schedule. Her children Conor (14), James (12), Matthew (9) and Isabelle (5) are very active kids who play a mix of soccer, hurling and Gaelic football. The baby in the family, Isabelle, does gymnastics and swimming, and Jennifer says Isabelle was keen to have her own activities having watched her older brothers go to their training and matches.

Jennifer, who works as a pharmacist at the Mater Hospital in Dublin and has just completed a two-year Masters in leadership at the Royal College of Surgeons, says she fits it all in by being very organised and says she's lucky to finish work at 4pm, which gives her time to feed the kids and get them out the door to their training.

She and her husband Ray use an app called Cosy to put in all the arrangements so they are both in the loop about the children's various activities. It also allows them to manage who's picking up and dropping off with the other parents whose children are involved in the same sports.

Ballyboden St Enda's GAA club is a hub for the family and Jennifer believes they have all benefited greatly through the kids' involvement in sport. She says it's expanded all their horizons socially and the kids have made friendships for life.

"It can be a rush to get them fed and homework done, but they love it. It's given them a bigger circle of friends and they have a huge connection to the club and to their teams. It's exercise too. Having something to strive for is great and the friendships they've made are great. I hope the kids will persevere with a love of sport as they grow up," says Jennifer.

She says that while it's busy, the family manage to take it all in their stride. "I think it's all about enjoying what you do. I am conscious of enjoying the kids while they're young - you have to enjoy it all. I do have to be organised and I would know what we're having for dinner every night, but the more you have to do, the more you fit in," she says.

Taryn de Vere, a mum of five from Co Donegal, says having a big family means making decisions that are best for everyone. "Life is about following your passion and that is really healthy. If your child has a passion for something, you want them to pursue it. I do also try to look at what's best for our family as a unit. Sometimes that means saying no to things," she says.

As a single parent living 20 minutes outside the nearest town, Taryn has to balance the interests of one child with the best interests of everyone.

"I feel the school day is too long and too regimented. I feel the methodology of school learning is not as creative as I would like it to be for my family. I also feel at the end of the school day they must feel like I feel when I finish my day's work. I certainly do not feel like going off to do an activity like learning violin after my work," says Taryn.

Mum to Fionn (16), Bella (14), Oscar (11), Tilly (8) and five-year-old Remi, Taryn, who works as a parenting adviser, says because she shares custody of her children, when they are with her, they try to spend time together doing activities like gardening, art or simply going for a walk on the beach.

"I think there's an over-emphasis on over-scheduling. We get stuck into creative projects at home. Collage just took over our kitchen and dining room for the past two or three days. I just give them the space to get stuck into projects. I think sometimes people as parents lack confidence. Ireland doesn't really encourage a lot of creativity in parents," says Taryn.

Child psychologist Sarah O'Doherty says at the heart of the debate is a need to acknowledge that every family and child is different and what works for one child may not work for another.

And she says the key to knowing whether you're doing too much is to check in regularly with your child to see how they are managing.

She points out that free play and time to do nothing is a huge part of a child's development, and too much structure takes away from allowing them to harness their imaginations. However, she says parents should offer opportunities to the child to try new things.

"Your child may not be good at what the parent wants them to be good at. It might be something completely different. When you expose them to a whole range of different things, it can offer an opportunity," says Sarah.

Parents know their own children best and while some love being time-tabled, others will not do well if every moment is planned. And she says parents shouldn't be afraid to throw the time-table to the wind if the child is not benefiting. "A child being bored is a really important thing. That's what brings out their creativity," she says.

CEO of Parentline, Rita O'Reilly, says the topic of after-school activities is always something that parents wring their hands about. And she says parents need to be aware that when they schedule activities for one child, it has an impact on everyone in the family.

"Before you sign up to something, ask yourself: 'Does my child need this?' We measure our lives against other people's but surely it would be fine after dinner to just sit with your child and draw a picture. Parents are chasing their tails all the time, but if the enjoyment has gone out of it, it's time to change," says Rita.

She says parents should have more confidence in their own choices rather than looking at what the kids next door are doing.

"Make time to relax. Do something impromptu. Don't be a slave to the schedule and don't be influenced by what anyone else is doing," she says.

Irish Independent

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