Navigating the Children’s Activity Gauntlet

I think it’s an open question whether younger kids or older kids require more juggling. My kids are quite young – almost 3, and 7 months – so someone has to be around them constantly. They can’t do much for themselves, so all snacks, meals, wardrobe and diaper changes require an adult’s presence. The baby can’t even be put down by himself for more than about 5 minutes before he starts fussing!

On the other hand, they don’t have any extracurricular activities, which seem to be an organizational stumbling block for some families with older kids. (An important word here is “some;” as I wrote in the Wall Street Journal last fall, few kids do many activities, and a high proportion do none).

Anyway, here are some tips for running this gauntlet that I came across while writing 168 Hours. If your kids are in serious contention for, say, college athletic scholarships or playing with the New York Philharmonic at age 15, these might not all apply. But for most kids, activities are about learning new things, staying in shape and having fun. Here’s how to stay sane while they do that:

1. Encourage your kids to focus their time. Contrary to popular opinion, the admissions officers at Princeton and Harvard are not looking for a scattershot resume of 4 sports, 3 instruments, and 6 volunteer activities. That’s not passion, that’s ADD. Better to go deep in a small number of activities that bring your child the most joy. A good mix might be a sport (which she trains for in the off-season), an arts activity and/or a volunteer activity (bonus points if the latter is related to one of the first two – like she’s a tennis player who also coaches little kids).

2. Know exactly how much time various activities require. There are two reasons for this. First, it’s important for you and your children to know what you’re agreeing to when you make a commitment. But second, this helps keep the numbers in perspective, because they might be lower than you think. A sport might take 6-8 hours per week. A volunteer commitment might take 2. Even a very busy child is most likely doing 10-15 hours of activities per week. Add in 30 for school, 10 for homework and you still have a ton of free time. Of course, that’s from the kids’ perspective. If you have more than one kid, you might be looking at 20-30 hours for two kids, or 30-45 for three. So…

3. Aim for economies of scale. Kids are different, but it’s possible they might like the same things. So if you can, sign all of them up for the same activities. Not only might you get a discount on piano or dance lessons if you use the same studio for all of your kids, you won’t have the problem of one child’s recital conflicting with another’s.

4. Carpool. It’s better for the environment. I do understand that it’s good to get your kids in the car solo sometimes to talk, but I’m guessing most families aren’t exactly short in the car-time department. And while it’s become fashionable for people to wax eloquent that “my dad never missed a baseball game,” from a practical standpoint, this is impossible. Dads get sick. Their cars break down, they have to finish projects at work, they go back to school and take night classes, or they need to drive another kid somewhere. So don’t set this as a standard. Be there often but not always.

5. When in doubt, choose activities sponsored by their school. It’s just more efficient to end the school day and then go straight to practice at the school gym, or to rehearsal in the auditorium for the school play, than to get in a car and go elsewhere.

6. Encourage your kids to do activities with friends whose parents you like. If you’re spending your Saturdays at Little League games, it’s more fun if you’re attending with friends. Make it into a picnic or a playdate for your younger children. Or, one of the most brilliant approaches…

7. Choose activities you can do too! Adults can also compete in tae kwon do tournaments, take piano lessons, volunteer (a great activity to do as a family), sing in community choirs, etc. When you find activities that bring you and your children joy together, you’ll no longer be worrying about how these commitments make life too complicated.

8. If you’ve got a big family, it’s OK not to do too much. That’s the message I got from the story of Doug and Cheryl Chumley, who I interviewed for 168 Hours. The Virginia-based Chumleys have four children, and both mom and dad work full-time. They manage to spend an incredible amount of time together as a family in part because they don’t enroll their children in every activity under the sun. “I have four kids and they all play together, so it’s not like they’re ever lonely,” Cheryl told me. Six family members can make for a great 3-on-3 basketball game, with no running around in the car required.

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