The XX Factor

When School Looms, But After-School Looms Even Larger

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

This is the week that I have pinged all of the emails regarding children’s fall activities and school to return to me. The week of filling out contact data and permission-to-administer-over-the-counter-medications. The week of looking at soccer and gymnastics and violin and homework and trying to figure out who does what when and where, with who driving. The week when I am sorely tempted by things I always wish I’d learned to do (horseback riding lessons!) and overly optimistic about how willing a child who comes home every weeknight at 5:30 will be to sit right down to his or her homework. (After-school activities count as decompressing time, right?)

The message in this weekend’s NYT article Family Happiness and the Overbooked Child was clear: Stop the madness. There’s no link between a child’s academic success and a multiplicity of enriching activities. Little real chance that the child will go on to become a world-class golfer or ballerina. And much to suggest (at least at my house) that we’re not adding a thing to family happiness by finding a way to shuttle two kids to soccer while picking another up from piano and dropping the fourth at hockey, and then performing some variation on that dance five afternoons a week.

But as much as I want to type the words “this is the year we let some things go,” I still hesitate. My two youngest kids love both soccer and tennis; will I really make them choose? The oldest child’s inviolable hockey-and-homework schedules mean there is simply no way his three younger siblings can do half of what he did at their age. Is that unfair or a blessing in disguise? I can create an entire you-loved-him-more future dialogue over one unscheduled pottery class. And then there’s the real problem, which is that we (by which I mean I) think that if a 5-year-old doesn’t play fall soccer, it will be my fault when she doesn’t make the varsity team.

My mother did indeed work to help me maintain a complicated activity schedule in middle and high school, when I could contribute by finding my own rides if I needed to, and deciding for myself whether to stick with band or choir when both became impossible. When I was 6, she would have found the idea of four-afternoon-a-week activities a laughable intrusion on my ability to watch Hogan’s Heroes while she attended college classes. Her decision to forgo whatever after-school enrichment she could have found for me (macrame, perhaps?) was about her, and rightly so. I turned out happy and successful, and I can still do a wicked Col.l Klink imitation. My inablility to say no to tennis, soccer, and violin is about me when it shouldn’t be.

The fewer activities I put my younger children into, the easier it is for me to both work and parent. But I’m afraid that making parenting choices based on what’s right for me, instead of what might be “good for” them makes me selfish (even though I admire my own mother for doing the same). Giving up soccer might mean a calmer dinner hour, but it also means giving up my own parental over-achiever image. Shouldn’t I be able to manage both—or make that all? I know I can’t. But this is the week, before it all starts up again, when anything seems possible and everything seems important. What I need really isn’t the time to do everything. It’s the strength to admit that we (that I) can’t, and that none of us really wants to.