So Free Time Is Bad?

About 8 or 9 years ago, when my son was in first or second grade, he was having his annual medical check-up, when the doctor asked his mother and me about our son’s activities outside of school.  This wasn’t an unusual question and went along with other queries concerning his social development and school performance.  In response, we told the doctor about the martial arts classes our son was taking a couple of nights a week.

Her follow-up surprised me: “And that’s it?”

There was a hint of disapproval in her voice that stung.  This was our first child.  Were we doing something wrong?  A medical professional that we trusted seemed to be implying so.  Obviously we needed to get the boy involved in a lot more activities!

But as my then-wife and I discussed it on the way home from the appointment, I thought back to my own childhood.  Yes, I was in an organized soccer league for a few years that had practice a night or two a week and games some Saturday mornings, but mostly when I was done with school, I played with my friends. 

Was that considered a bad thing now?

I certainly noticed that other kids we knew seemed to have every moment of their lives booked up.  A neighbor’s son played multiple sports and was always at practice or games, and, once their daughter got old enough, she was doing the same.  They were never home, and their parents were constantly shuttling them to one place or another.  Meanwhile, I started to resent it when my son’s martial arts practices went up to three nights a week.

Did not wanting to spend every night that after work taking my kid to an afterschool activity make me a bad parent?  I guess we could have that discussion if my son was begging to let him do more things, but he wasn’t.  In fact, once he got his black belt, he decided that he was done with martial arts (And my feeling about kids’ martial arts classes are nicely by Penn & Teller.  For focus and discipline? Yeah, maybe.  For anything else?  Ehhhhh.).

But now that he wasn’t going to martial arts, what was he going to do after school?  Surely I had to find some other activity for him IMMEDIATELY!

What followed was a lot of me suggesting things and my son replying that he wasn’t interested.  I suppose I could have forced him to play baseball or something like that, but I didn’t.  As uninterested as he was, I was even less interested in the constant fights about practice and such that would ensue.

So what happened?  He went to school, and, when he wasn’t at school, he played with his friends.   Sometime later, I found a fencing class that was being offered in our area.  I wanted to take it, and, when I asked my son, he did too.  No force was involved.

When he got to middle school, he found activities that he wanted to do.  He was in the school musical for two years, and then in his last year at the school, he joined the backstage crew, which he found to be much more fun. 

Now that he’s in high school, he’s joined a couple of clubs while still spending time outside of school with friends.  Yes, he spends more time on the computer than I would like, but even there he’s always talking to his friends as they play games together online.

So he’s social and he’s involved in activities that he wants to do.  Why was I supposed to schedule his every waking moment when he was younger?

Now that my daughter is getting toward the end of elementary school, I’m running into the opposite problem.  She wants to be involved in everything.


She dances three nights a week, and she’s in band at school along with another club.  She wanted to be in the school musical and other clubs, but couldn’t because of dance.  She’s already concerned about middle school because she absolutely wants to be involved with the musical there and knows that dance could be a problem.

She has a friend who is basically owned by the dance school.  She’s there almost every night, which means that A) her parents are also there every night, and B) they are handing over a ton of money for classes, costumes, competition fees and so on.

And that’s absolutely fine if that’s what they have decided they want to do.

My daughter, however, isn’t willing to only do one thing.  I know there’s pressure from the dance school.  Just this morning, I received an e-mail from the dance school director that she sent out to all of the parents.  It included an article she found in which a dance instructor lamented that her students were not always “living” the routines she was teaching them.  Granted, at a certain level, the dancers should probably be living the routines (whatever that means), but an elementary school kid might just be dancing because she enjoys it.  Just as she enjoys playing an instrument or acting in a play.  Dance may be your life, Ms. Director, but it’s not necessarily my daughter’s.

Nor should it be at this point.

In some ways, I guess I’m advocating a happy medium between scheduling every moment of your child’s life with various activities and throwing them into one exclusively. 

It’s really more than that, though.  Childhood in my view should be a time of exploration.  Some of that exploration comes through discovering what activities they like and what they don’t.  They should be able to try new things without being told that they can’t because they’ve been indentured to one group or another. 

But kids also learn and explore through unstructured play.  As I said earlier, I was on a soccer team, but I don’t think back on that nearly as fondly as I do the time spent rambling around my neighborhood with my friends or setting up elaborate Star Wars bases with my toys. 

Let your kids play.  Despite what my son’s doctor seemed to think, a bit of free time isn’t the worst thing in the world.

- Alan Decker

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