Back to School Basics: Striking the Right Balance

Back to school new

To cap off my Back to School series, I’ve saved the best for last.  When I say “best for last”, I really mean the part that I struggle with the most: Finding the right balance between school, activities and family life.  I wish there was some magic formula that makes this work for everyone but, alas, we are all pretty much on our own to figure this one out.  Out of my five children I’ve had two musicians, a few athletes, a couple of boy scouts and girl scouts and an editor of the high school year book.  My older three all even had part-time jobs during high school. I have spent more hours behind the wheel of my minivan, carting them to and fro than I care to think about.  Despite all of that, I remain a strong believer in children being encouraged to find out what makes them tick; to develop outside interests; and to become involved in an activity and own it.   You see, education isn’t just what happens in the class room, but it’s also what happens in life.  It’s trying something and discovering a new passion or maybe not.  Education can be failing at something and trying it again or setting out in a new direction.  So, when do you begin?  As soon as possible.

It wouldn’t surprise me if others have accused me of being one of THOSE moms.  You know, the one’s that have their kids over scheduled in just about every activity known to man kind.  While it is true that my kids do take part in a lot of activities, particularly my younger two, there is a method to my madness. Obviously there is no “one size fits all approach”  but, I do think that there are some things that we (parents) need to keep in mind as we help our children develop their interests:

1. Know your child.  When my oldest son was little he loved his alone time.  Yes, he was sociable, but he also really needed time when it was just him, his video game or favorite book and silence.  One or two extra curricular activities was about all that he could handle and he would have never been up for the schedule that my younger two girls keep.  Dance, swim, gymnastics, Girl Scouts, tennis…they only know one speed and that’s “go”!  I have tried different combinations of activities and I realized very early on that keeping them fairly busy is a sanity saver for all of us.  Build in your boundaries, like all activities need to be over by a certain time in the evening (depending upon the child’s age) or your child must maintain a certain grade in school to participate.  What ever it is, set the limit then pay attention to your kid.  Some kids are just fine with one activity at a time until they find the one that clicks, while others really do need more activities or they will be bouncing off of the walls and taking you along for the ride.

2. Let their imaginations run wild.  I once knew a woman who had three children – two boys and a girl.  The girl was her baby, five years younger than her older brother – and the mother had been impatiently waiting to finally enroll her little girl in ballet lessons.  She wanted to do “girl stuff” (her words, not mine)! Her daughter, however, loved soccer.  LOVED soccer!  She HATED ballet!  Needless to say, things didn’t go the way mom had hoped that they would and there was a quick return to the soccer field.   This should have come as no surprise since the girl had told her mom up front that she wanted no part of dance classes.  See, the thing is that we (parents) need to follow our children’s lead.  In the beginning, when they are very young,  it is our job to introduce them to a variety of activities, but then, as they get older, we need to step away and let them take the lead in exploring new interests. Sometimes their imaginations will take them to places that we never expected, but that’s okay…really, it is…trust me.

How much is too much?
How much is too much?

3.  Know what your goals are and be realistic. Yes, both of my girls take gymnastics.  No, I do not think that either of them is going to be the next Gabby Douglas.  It wouldn’t be a bad thing if they were but, I’m just keeping it real.   Quite honestly, I do not approach any of this with an eye on some prize, unless that prize is high self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment for my children.   Anything else is a bonus.  How often have we seen a parent’s disappointment with their kid for sitting the bench or watched a child berated for not making that shot or swimming faster than their opponent.  That’s not what this is about, people.  Getting your children involved in extra curricular activities is about helping them grow into well-rounded adults.  They need to struggle, and sometimes fail, in order to learn how to appreciate success.  They need to learn process and the value of hard work.  They need to be a part of a team or an organization to learn how to work for a common goal.  They will not always be the star player or the president of the club but, that’s another thing that’s okay…you can trust me on this one, too.

4. Understand the level of commitment that is required by you, then go all in. Let’s just say that you discover that your little girl, who was just playing around in gymnastics, happens to be really talented.  Or that your son’s gift for gab and arguing every single thing that you say has turned him into an extremely valuable member of the debate team.  What now?  Here’s where things can get pretty tricky because not only can they spend hours practicing and training, but you can also spend hours sitting at practice and/or driving him and maybe even his team mates around to various events.  School clubs tend to not be very taxing on the wallet, but they are in need of parent volunteers and over sight.  On the other hand sports can be both expensive and time-consuming.  Once you see that your child is getting serious about a particular activity, it’s best that you do your homework and determine just how far that you are willing to go both in budget and time.  Maybe your child is a musician?  That, too, can become costly between purchasing instruments and private lessons.  Know what you are dealing with because part of a child’s success can be determined by the amount of support that they receive at home.  By all means, don’t over extend yourself financially, but do look for alternatives in order to support your son or daughter’s interests.

5. Know what you are not willing to sacrifice.  I will not spend every weeknight and every weekend driving my kids around from activity to activity.  Not going to happen. Preferably, both Saturday and Sunday are free of any lessons or commitments, other than church, but that’s not always possible.  It has happened that we have scheduled classes on Saturday, however, Sunday belongs to my family.  Additionally, I keep one weeknight free, or at least flexible.  Big Poppa travels quite a bit and even when he is home, the girls and I are rarely in the house when he gets in from work.  We need our time together as a family and we make it a priority.  Set your priorities and stick to them, whatever they may be.  As much as I believe that kids need activities and new experiences, they also need their families and time to just be a kid.

It’s not easy to determine what balance works best for your family and there are a lot of factors to consider – time, finances, interests, availability.     Countless articles have been written on the subject and there’s still no easy answer.  However, one thing is commonly known and that is that kids thrive when they are involved in healthy extra curricular activities.  Encourage your kids to try something new this year.  Find out what their interests are and help them to explore new avenues.  The main thing is that you are there encouraging them inside and outside of the classroom.

Have a wonderful school year! 🙂

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