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Piano classes, football, scouts, birthday parties ...are we doing far too much for our children?

MOST kids these days have packed schedules. Arlene Harris asks two mums and an expert if that's the best option for them.

Although it was only a few decades ago, things were remarkably different when I was a child. We had none of the luxury items that most children today see as commonplace – such as computers and mobile phones – instead our media entertainment came in the form of two TV channels (one which didn't broadcast until the evening) and the chart show on the radio every Sunday.

But despite the lack of intervention on the entertainment front, there was also precious little by way of extra-curricular activity to make up for it. I don't remember anyone doing swimming, ballet, martial arts or music after school and as for a foreign language; you have got to be joking.

However, with modern technology advancing by the day, modern children are never short of digital entertainment, plus we seem to be permanently in the car taking them from one activity to another.

We spoke to two mums from different generations to see if one approach is better than the other, or is finding a happy medium the answer?

> Deborah Donnelly has three children, Evin (11), Franky (6) and Casey (5). She works as an artist and author but finds that as soon as the children come home from school, she is constantly on the go with play-dates and extra-curricular activities.

"The kids go to school for 8.30am so I get an early start in my studio," says the Co Dublin woman. "I work all the way through the day and have the alarm set on my phone to go off at 2pm as when I'm painting I lose all track of time.

"Monday is my craziest day. School finishes at 2.10pm and the kids have piano at 2.45pm. Then football is on from 7pm until 8pm, Monday and Wednesday; they have scouts on Saturdays and when you throw in a few parties and play-dates (which with three children there are a lot of both), my week is kidnapped.

 

Creative

"But I grew up in a very creative family and my mom insisted we either learn an instrument or a craft as it's so important to open a child's creative duct. I believe art is a form of expression and helps to fight depression. So I want my kids to have a coping mechanism if they are feeling down and to know that the arts can be their crutch if they need one.

"I was kicked out of the house to play as a kid as was my mom before me, but I suppose I don't do that, as my biggest fear is safety. There are more cars on the road today and there are also people out there who don't like children – so I do worry, which is why I taxi them about.

"But sometimes I have complaints from them – when they come home from school, they want to relax, but they are straight back out again. So it can be tough on them, too.

"Last week, Evin decided he was going to quit piano, I didn't put pressure on him and he made the decision himself. So he told the teacher and we left. But he was so upset. He had experienced his first gut reaction and realised that he didn't want to quit after all so we had to call the teacher back and explain.

"He is learning life lessons – and for that it's worth being a taxi-driving mum."

> Mary Broughal has three grown-up sons, Rory, Colm and Mark – and although they have all now left home, the Dun Laoghaire woman says that even though she was working while they were growing up, her boys spent their time entertaining themselves.

"Back in the mid nineties when my boys were 10, eight and five years old, I was a working mum and they went to a child-minder after school," says the medical secretary. "We didn't have much money, interest rates were high at 13pc and we couldn't afford much in the way of extra-curricular activities or summer holidays.

"So on school days, they spent their evenings playing football in the field near to the child-minder's house and during the holidays, they were looked after by an au-pair at home and were kept amused by going to the beach or Killiney Hill and with visits to and from friends with children of a similar age. They were also members of the local Beavers group and the football club.

"But although they got bored regularly and like all children moaned when there was nothing to do, I was fortunate that they were close enough in age that they could play together. Their favourite activity was setting up camp in the garden with chairs and old sheets

"I believe life was more simple back then and parents were able to let their children play freely outside with their friends."

> Peadar Maxwell is a child and family psychologist based in Wexford. He says extra-curricular activities are great for children's development both physically and mentally.

"Extra-curricular activities give children the opportunities to explore roles and to develop important skills as well as to socialise with others," he says. "An often an added bonus of activities can be that children learn important things such as body awareness, accepting rules and expressing their own ideas in creative and somewhat public ways.

"So whether it's gymnastics or hurling, scouting or swimming, the chess club or drama group, your child can learn awareness through movement, rules and turn- taking, civic mindedness and concentration skills that develop as a side effect apart from the main motivation to be involved; which is usually just to be amongst friends.

 

Sports

"When children are very young, it is good to expose them to as many sports and interests as they are willing to attend with the caution to not overload them.

"As they get older they will weed out the activities they are less interested in or they downright hate.

"But having some experience of a mixture of sports and hobbies gives your child experiences that they might not seek out themselves and choices when it is time to choosing [things to occupy themselves].

"Also, the child's nervous system benefits greatly from a variety of physical and mental tasks such as painting, doing tumbling and rolling, catching a ball or the movement patterns in martial arts."

However, the experienced psychologist warns that too much activity is not advisable and if a child is very reluctant to take part in something, they should not be forced to do so.

"Children, like adults, have their limit and I would not advise parents to have their children over-scheduled," he says.

"Children have different sensory thresholds, meaning they need different levels of activity and rest.

"Observe whether or not your child is restless and needs to get out more or if he is exhausted and needs more downtime.

"Keep some time available for family activities such as being home together, taking the dog for a walk or reading alone in a quiet room.

"Also, I wouldn't advise parents to force their children to go to activities.

"If a child is very distressed about a sport or other hobby then there's a problem that needs to be understood. I would however encourage parents to coax or gently lead their child to step outside their comfort zone.

 

Television

"Sometimes children are looking for the parent to say they have to do something and sometimes a child has just got comfortable at home in front of the television or doesn't want to go out because the weather is not great.

Other times, though the child is self-conscious about being in a bathing suit, fearful of contact sports, maybe he has experienced some form of intimidation in a sport (however mild it may seem) or is anxious about a performance in an activity – so it is important to be aware."


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