Parents are often caught in a dilemma regarding the quantity and quality of their children’s after-school activities. On one hand, parents are legitimately concerned about kids spending their free time on TV watching, video games, or in Internet chat rooms. Besides the well documented “couch potato effect” – obesity, high cholesterol, passivity – that results from physically un-engaging leisure activities there is also evidence linking violent behavior, lack of empathy, and smoking with excessive TV viewing and video game playing. In addition, crime rates and the usage of controlled substances among teens is directly linked to the quantity of their hanging out time during the late afternoon and early evening hours.
On the other hand, there are the families that have scheduled so much after school activity for their children that they exhibit signs of stress similar to their overworked parents. These parents are driven by two factors. They do not want their children to become couch potatoes and secondly, they harbor a strong belief that in order for their children to keep up in our highly competitive society they need to develop skills and interests that go beyond what is offered in our schools.
Is there a happy medium? And if there is, how do we find it?
To begin to answer these questions we must first establish some fundamentals:
- Childhood mental development proceeds at a rate largely determined by our genetic programming. Although it has been shown that insufficient stimulation will lead to problems in learning this does not mean that stimulation beyond sufficiency will accelerate intellectual abilities. We pay a big price when we try to hasten natural development. For example, engaging pre-schoolers in formal academic type activities is not only a waste of time but it can curtail normal development that occurs through exploration and spontaneous play.
- Highly structured sports and play activities may have a negative impact on social skills development. When adults strictly regulate our children’s physical activities, our children do not have the opportunity to sufficiently learn and practice the tools necessary for cooperation and successful dispute settlements. If adults exclusively set the rules and resolve differences children miss out on the necessary trial and error experiences needed to learn how to relate to their peers.
- Human growth and development is not a strictly linear process. We all go through individual cycles of high productivity followed by down time. Therefore, children like adults, need to learn how to monitor their own internal states and avoid stress through relaxation and an appreciation of the necessity of a certain amount of “chill time.”
Hear are some tips on finding that middle ground.
– Become knowledgeable about the stages of childhood development. I particularly recommend reading The Hurried Child-25th Anniversary Edition and other books by David Elkind.
– Be mindful of your child’s interests, temperament and stress level. Make sure you are not imposing goals that are inconsistent with your child’s personality and interests.
– Allow for as much spontaneous play as possible. In addition, give your children a little more space in attempting to settle their own social disputes.
– Early adolescence is a good time to help your child explore a wide variety of interests. There is plenty of time for specialization.
– Try to combine leisure time with family time. Watching TV together or planning future fun activities as a family enhances relationships and helps parents better monitor non-structured time.
by Dr. Richard C. Horowitz, Parenting/Family Coach