Q&A: Kid's Activities

Thanks for all your questions, everyone! (Didn't ask one? Go ahead, ask away.) I've started writing the answers to each question, but it will take me a few weeks to get through them all. In other words, don't be offended if I don't get to your question right away.

I was surprised to see some things come up that I'd never thought about addressing, especially the one question that was asked the most.

From Dina:

So, as my kids get older and busier (I have a high schooler and middle schooler now), I physically can't be in as many places as I need to be with them and my younger kids. There are times that are less than ideal. Little boys eating sandwiches in the car for the 3rd night in a row as we drive to baseball games, or just wanting to stay and watch my high schooler practice with her dance team, but I have to drop off and run because the little boys need me, etc. I know that you don't have your kids in sports or a lot of outside activities. What if they show interest? Will that change? As you have more children and can't clone yourself, how will you manage to meet everyone's needs?

and Shaunda:
I like Dina's question. This is something my husband and I talk about a lot. Even if each child only did one music activity and one sport or other activity that adds up to a lot of activities with a large family. (We have six kids). How do you decide what activities to have children in, especially when they have an interest or a talent in a specific area?

And Allison:
Anyhow, my first is Dina's question on how you manage to get everywhere you need to be for all your children. Even if activities are limited, there are still school functions, church activities, etc..... that might be for one child/age group and not the others. I guess I'm feeling a little like my world was rocked with the addition of sweet Audrey and I am really struggling to balance the needs of my toddler/newborn with my 11, 8, and 6 year olds. Help, please!!!

These are very good questions! How do you allow your children to participate in a variety of athletics, classes, music, and Church activities when you have more than just a few?

I'm not an expert by any means, and just like the rest of you, we make decisions, second-guess them, and sometimes make it up as we go along. Sometimes I think we do too much, other times too little, and there have been some activities I've signed my kids up for that I've said, "Never again!" afterwards.

I will mention what we've done so far, some of my thoughts on outside activities, and our plans for the future, but I'd also love to hear how you've found the balance in your own families -- feel free to comment on this subject with your own tips and insights.

First, I should mention that my children are pretty involved in activities. In the last six months, we've had four kids take gymnastics, one in track, one involved in the school play, one in early-morning orchestra, two taking piano and one taking violin. Add the preschool co-op I did for the twins, swimming lessons for five of them, several vacations and small trips, fun outings, Scouts for Joey, and Activity Days for Lillian (both sponsored by our Church), and I don't think any of our kids are starving for stimulation.

Principles of Family Management

As I've thought about this question, and particularly as it relates to family size, I've come up with these ideas:

1. Every family is limited to some degree or another in the number and nature of outside activities they can participate in. Some are limited by their children's interests (or lack thereof) and genetic talents. Some by where they live, like families in rural areas who don't have soccer leagues and gymnastics clubs within driving distances. Many are limited to some degree or another by economics. Some are limited by circumstances beyond their control, such as divorce, or disability. I know a good woman with four children, three of whom were born dangerously premature. Her options for extra activities have to take into account her children's physical handicaps and be fitted around doctor's appointments, therapists, and the like.

2. Every mother fills up her time, usually very productively, whether she has two kids or seven or twelve. When I was about twelve, one of my young women leaders gave us advice about getting ready for school on time. She was the mother of many daughters and she said, "I always tell my girls to do everything else first and your hair last. Whatever time you have left, your hair will use it up. If you have five minutes to do your hair, that's all it will take. If you have twenty minutes, then that's what it will take." Of course, even at the time, my most complicated hairstyle took no longer than eight minutes, but I got her point, and I think it's relevant to this discussion.

Commitments expand to fill the time available for them. We all have to say no to some things, but we also fill our time with good, worthwhile activities. Ask any mother whose youngest child has just entered first grade and you'll understand what I mean -- the dream of long, leisurely days with plenty of time to do all those long-anticipated projects somehow falters in the reality of all there still is to do, even with all their kids in school. We all have to make decisions about what is the best use of our time and talents.

I don't think having more children automatically makes you that much busier than someone with fewer. I may have three times as many children as a mother of two, but it doesn't follow that I'm three times as busy or that I work harder or do more than she does. I'm just busy with different things. My sister has two girls who are both in school full time, and she is just as busy as I am. She simply uses her time differently. She doesn't change diapers or teach preschool or organize playgroups, but she does attend the temple more than I do and is a beautiful watercolor artist. She gives more time to service outside her home than I do at this stage in my life.

I often get the "How in the world do you do it?" question from other moms, who then add, "I'm struggling just to handle my three (or four or two)." I like to answer, "The same way you do," because it's the truth. I'm juggling just like every mother juggles; I just have to juggle different balls. As a mother of seven, I've had to put on hold many of the things I did when I had fewer children. I don't do much design work anymore. While I keep a family history through this blog and weekly emails to family members and friends, I do less and less scrapbooking, and most of that is simply churned out as quickly as possible so I can catch up. My house is not really decorated the way it would be if I had more time, and my pile of projects to do when I find time keeps growing. I used to sew almost every day and now I'm lucky if I find time for it once a year. At times I've clipped coupons and hit sales and I enjoy it, but I've also found I can't keep up with it all the time. Here and there, yes, but all the time, no.

I still find time for things I enjoy; I just have to enjoy those things in smaller doses and put some off indefinitely.

3. Outside activities need to be evaluated in terms of our ultimate goals for our children.
My ultimate goal as a mother isn't to turn my children into great competitors, or even to have them be well-rounded, though both are good things. I read a blog once where the mother worried that her children might not grow up to be funny. As I thought about what traits and characteristics I want my children to have someday, I realized that I could handle it if my children aren't funny or super athletes or even if they aren't as book-smart as I want them to be. What would be devastating to me, however, is if my children grew up to be mean and self-centered or if they turned away from their Father in Heaven.

My goal as a mother is to raise children that come to know for themselves the value of prayer, hard work, kindness, service, and faith. Outside activities need to be evaluated in terms of this goal. Many of them can contribute to developing my children's talents, helping them to learn to get along with others, and teaching them how to work towards a goal. Others may interfere with precious family time or stretch our resources too much.

4. Children need unstructured time.
Years ago, I read Glimpses into the Life and Heart of Marjorie Pay Hinckley and I was touched by this account:

“One day our oldest boy turned up missing. There were lawns to be mowed and irrigation ditches to be cleaned. The hours ticked away. All afternoon I practiced the speech I would give him when he showed up, and show up he did, at meal time, which I knew he would.

‘Where have you been?’ I asked. ‘Down in the hollow.’ ‘And what have you been doing down in the hollow?’ His reply, ‘Nothing.’

“Some years later I had reason to be glad that I had not given him the speech. He was home from his mission and was a senior at the university. It was test week and he was under a lot of pressure to do well in order to get into the graduate school of his choice. The pressures of adult life were beginning to be felt. I watched him as he drove home from school one afternoon. He got out of the car, kicked a clod of dirt, went over to examine the swelling buds on a lilac tree, came out to our kitchen, straddled a chair backwards and said, ‘Mom I had a wonderful childhood, didn’t I?’

“’Well, I hope so; you did your fair share of complaining about all of the work that had to be done.’

“’Oh, it was wonderful—those long summer days when you could lie on your back in the hollow and listen to the birds sing and watch the ants build their castles.’”

At the time, I was struggling to manage all that I wanted to teach my children and all that I wanted them to be involved in. As I read that story, I was reminded that many of the most important memories of childhood are made by having long hours with nothing scheduled.

I remember my own years growing up fondly. I vaguely remember eating orange slices during soccer half-time and hoping I would get to be goalie so I could sit down sometimes. I remember turning cartwheels in right field while some kid tried to hit a ball off a T. I have some fuzzy memories of dressing up for ballet with my friend Megan. But my most vivid memories involve the natural world. I remember catching snakes and getting muddy playing in the irrigation ditch behind my house. I remember peeking in the swallow's nest under our bridge and seeing first the eggs and then the hatchlings. I recall running away from my older sister once when she was mean when she was babysitting. I ran to the "big tree," a large cottonwood just beyond our pasture, and sat there imagining how I'd go off and become an Indian and live off berries and fish. That big tree was always my refuge, and I'd go there often to play, to climb, and to think. I also loved playing basketball with the neighborhood kids, or finding leftover lumber at the new house being built and helping my brothers drag it home for our next fort.

I had a wonderful childhood, and I hope to provide some of that same magic, unstructured time for my children.

I love this quote by M. Russell Ballard,
don’t overschedule yourselves or your children. We live in a world that is filled with options. If we are not careful, we will find every minute jammed with social events, classes, exercise time, book clubs, scrapbooking, Church callings, music, sports, the Internet, and our favorite TV shows. One mother told me of a time that her children had 29 scheduled commitments every week: music lessons, Scouts, dance, Little League, day camps, soccer, art, and so forth. She felt like a taxi driver. Finally, she called a family meeting and announced, “Something has to go; we have no time to ourselves and no time for each other.” Families need unstructured time when relationships can deepen and real parenting can take place. Take time to listen, to laugh, and to play together.
In our family, we may need to do less outside activities than another family in order to preserve the unstructured family time I value. As Shaunda said, even if each child takes just one music lesson and participates in one outside sport or activity (which is our general rule of thumb), that can overwhelm a family.

5. Outside activities can be overrated and overdone.
All families need to evaluate the opportunities around them in order to chooose the best ones for their families. Just because an activity is fun, affordable, or close by, doesn't mean we should sign our kids up for it. Dallin H. Oaks, in his wonderful talk Good, Better, and Best says this about children's activities:

In choosing how we spend time as a family, we should be careful not to exhaust our available time on things that are merely good and leave little time for that which is better or best. A friend took his young family on a series of summer vacation trips, including visits to memorable historic sites. At the end of the summer he asked his teenage son which of these good summer activities he enjoyed most. The father learned from the reply, and so did those he told of it. “The thing I liked best this summer,” the boy replied, “was the night you and I laid on the lawn and looked at the stars and talked.” Super family activities may be good for children, but they are not always better than one-on-one time with a loving parent.

The amount of children-and-parent time absorbed in the good activities of private lessons, team sports, and other school and club activities also needs to be carefully regulated. Otherwise, children will be overscheduled, and parents will be frazzled and frustrated. Parents should act to preserve time for family prayer, family scripture study, family home evening, and the other precious togetherness and individual one-on-one time that binds a family together and fixes children’s values on things of eternal worth. Parents should teach gospel priorities through what they do with their children.

Family experts have warned against what they call “the overscheduling of children.” In the last generation children are far busier and families spend far less time together. Among many measures of this disturbing trend are the reports that structured sports time has doubled, but children’s free time has declined by 12 hours per week, and unstructured outdoor activities have fallen by 50 percent.2

I struggle with the balance just like everyone else. Sometimes we do more than we should and sometimes less. I think it's important to remember is that for most of the history of the world, children did not spend their time in soccer leagues, dance classes, and the like. For the most part, they were working at home with their families, going to school, and creating their own entertainment. The pressure to sign our children up for every enrichment activity is a modern one. Outside activities can help children's development, but they can also hinder it, and that's something to keep in mind as we navigate through this generation's amazing variety of opportunities.

6. Heavenly Father provides His children with what they need. If God has an Olympic career in mind for one of His children, then I have to believe He'll send that child to a family where that aspiration can be realized. I believe that in God's wisdom, He has sent me children who will thrive in the environment we are able to provide for them, and I believe He'll help me know how to nurture my children. I've seen His hand in my life over and over again, providing for me and my family, and preparing a way for me to give my children what I want for them. I think many of the decisions are up to us, but with His help, we are able to do much more than without it.

One of my favorite hymns has this line, "Hast thou not seen, how all thou needest hath been, granted in what He ordaineth?" I believe and have seen that all that my family has needed has always been provided for us.

An example that is very pertinent to our discussion will illustrate. Almost four years ago, my husband and I both felt that it was time for us to move, and we wanted to find a permanent home to raise our children, both the five we had and the others we knew would come. As we began our search, we sat down with our family and talked about what we wanted in our home-to-be. Our children were all ages 6 and under, so some of their requests were a little funny. Joey wanted a "treehouse tree" and a "Darth Vader mask." (Hmmmm.) Lillian wanted a big backyard and lots of flowers. The others had no clue what we were talking about!

My husband and I had an even longer list. He wanted a commute of less than ten minutes and a place for a shop. I wanted a large dining area and the master bedroom on the same floor as the kids' bedrooms. One of my most important desires was that it be within walking distance of an elementary school. I knew how hard it was to get everyone ready and buckle in four carseats in order to get my oldest to school, and I knew that life would be much simpler if my kids could walk to school.

After we made our list, we prayed specifically for a house that had those things. We looked at a lot of houses that just weren't right before we determined that we would need to build. After searching and hoping for direction, I had a powerful, spiritual experience that let me know for certain where we should build our home. We bought the lot (there's a miracle involved in that story as well, but I don't have time to relate it now) and were thrilled that it was in a nice neighborhood with plenty of "treehouse trees."

The one thing our lot did not have, however, was an elementary school within walking distance. I felt resigned to driving my children to school, and since we were driving anyway, I looked into a charter school nearby that I thought would suit us. It did, and we were able to get our kids in for the next fall. In the meantime, I felt grateful for all my home did have and we set about the excitements and frustrations of building our dream home.

While we were building, the school, which had been renting a building twenty minutes away for the last five years, announced that it had purchased an old park and was drawing up its own plans for building. They also expanded their charter to include 6th through 8th grades. The "old park?" It was located just a block from our new home! We still had to drive our kids for a year to the old location while the school was being built, but I felt so blessed that my prayer had been answered and that we had been provided for so abundantly.

How we do it now and future plans

1. We are blessed by proximity.
Having the elementary school so close has been very helpful in allowing our children to participate in many activities. Joey's track club met after school twice a week. He was able to walk home afterward. Lillian leaves our home early, violin in hand, to attend early morning orchestra classes twice a week. The school goes through 8th grade, which gives us many years of easy access to most of our children's activities -- at one point, we'll have six kids in that school! After that, the high school is located within biking distance, so our kids could potentially get themselves to and from their events. Unlike many families, we will probably never have kids in three different schools, so that will help our juggling a bit.

2. We watch for our children's interests.
Our general rule is that in addition to Church activities, each child can participate in one musical experience and one other activity. Ideally, we'd like all of our children to play the piano well enough to play hymns. We start our children on piano lessons at age 8. Lillian showed an unusual dedication and self-discipline at an early age, so we started her on the violin when she was four. She takes both violin and piano now and really enjoys her orchestra classes. She practices daily without being reminded. Joey loves outdoor things and adventures, so we signed him up for a diving class this summer.

3. We try to cluster activities.
Having children close in age has helped us because many times they can participate in the same activities or be on the same team. All of our kids so far, with the exception of Lillian, will have a sibling just a year or less apart in school. Joey and Michael are a year apart like Eliza and Harmony will be. The twins have each other. When we signed the kids up for gymnastics, Joey and Michael were in the same class as were the twins. From 4 to 6 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, all four did their activities. On Tuesdays, I'd make a crockpot meal and on Thursdays, Lillian got the chance to cook (Having a ten-year-old who loves to cook is a great blessing!)

4. Our children help out.
Michael wanted to be involved in the school play. We felt he was too young to walk home alone after his once-a-week practices, but neither Lillian nor Joseph wanted to be in the play. We solved the problem by having Joey wait after school with Michael, reading and doing his homework while Michael rehearsed, then walking home with him. We paid him a dollar each time, and he was thrilled with the responsibility. Okay, and he liked the money, too.

In future years, we plan on having our teenage drivers -- there should be no shortage of them starting in about six years -- help out by driving their younger siblings to activities. My own parents were strict about the use of the car, but allowed me to earn the privilege of driving to school by driving my younger brother to early morning Seminary. I jumped at the opportunity and I'm hopeful my own children will feel the same way.

5. My husband has a short commute and flexible hours.
He works a lot from home, so he can keep an eye on the little ones if I need to run a quick errand or drop a child off at an activity. He can get away in the middle of the day for school performances and he's even driven the carpool for a few field trips. He still works -- a lot -- and working from home brings its own challenges for our family, but the flexibility he has makes a lot of things easier. I can run errands during my baby's morning nap or make a quick trip to the school to take pictures for the yearbook without having to take all the little ones with me.

6. We bring activities to us.
We've been blessed to find piano and violin teachers who are willing to come to our house. And, though it's not really an activity, we have a friend who comes to our house to cut everyone's hair every few months.

So, short of cloning myself, that's how we do and will handle outside activities. I'm sure it won't always be easy, and I anticipate there will be some years that I feel stretched to the limit, but I've already had lots of those years, so I should be well-prepared, right?

Anyone else have ideas or thoughts on children's activities?


Dina said…
Whew! No other thoughts here. What a blessing to have the school so close!
alligood said…
Great post! You wrote about a lot of things I already have felt (but needed to remember). When my twins were born, Matt had just turned 5 and Will was barely 2. Everyone kept asking how I was doing everything and was I overwhelmed. I could answer honestly that I didn't feel more overwhelmed at that time than I had when I just had one child! I remember the first time I had to take Matt to the grocery store by myself and I felt like crying! :-) It's amazing how our capabilities improve as we are given new and different challenges. I need to find my 'new groove' with Audrey, but it will come and I need to remember I won't feel quite as overwhelmed as I do right now!
kacy faulconer said…
Great advice!
Montana Blakes said…
I enjoyed this. I also enjoyed your comment on Segullah about the "Magic Number". (I posted there as Ana of the Nine Kids.) It is also interesting to me to observe other large families. It is a constant balancing act isn't it? :)
Unknown said…
I loved your comment -- "Every mother fills up her time, usually very productively, whether she has two kids or seven or twelve." I'm doing a lot of reevaluating as I'm reading your blog -- am I filling my time with what I want it to be filled with? Thank you for this!

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