Just a few nights ago, I dropped off our second child at her very first dance class. She turns seven this week, and there are those who would say that at this age, she’s already terribly behind.
Fortunately, her dance classes are at the community dance center of a local university, and they accept beginners of all ages. As I left her in the mirror-lined studio with six other giggling girls her age, I found myself thankful again for a dance program that didn’t raise an eyebrow at her “late” start.
We are an intentionally low-activity family. As my husband and I have watched our friends sign their young children up for sports and activities of all kinds, we have kind of shrugged our shoulders at each other. Should we? Would they enjoy it? What will it cost our family—not just in dollars, but in time?
It’s that last question that has kept our activity commitment so low. We examined each opportunity that came across our kitchen counter in the form of flyers and handouts and shiny brochures. It was important to us to figure out just how big of a withdrawal each activity would take from our family’s time bank. And often, the cost was too high.
There are a few key components of our family’s mission statement, and making space for unscheduled, unstructured free time is such a critical part of our mission that it drives many of our decisions.
My husband’s family didn’t have a TV for a large portion of his childhood, and he often reflects on how he filled his time playing with neighbor kids. It was during those long stretches of goofing around with the kids who lived nearby that he began to recognize that he was pretty decent at football, a sport he would go on to play in college and then coach for a decade at the collegiate level. All this happened because he didn’t have much else to do besides toss a ball around in someone’s yard after school.
As for my own growing up years, we had a TV but not much money for any kind of lessons or sports. From an early age, I found I could fill the time easily with a library card and a stack of books. I loved losing myself in the pages of a book, and my love of reading paved a way for my love of writing. The written word gained me a scholarship in English, which led me to a brief but meaningful stint in the classroom followed by a deeply rewarding decade spent blogging and writing.
The Cost of Over Scheduling
I think it’s because we grew into the people God created us to be as we filled the long, luxurious hours outside the structure of activities and school that we have become so fiercely protective of free time in the lives of our own children.
It hasn’t always been easy to go so defiantly against our culture’s penchant for over scheduling and hyper-busyness. We’ve questioned ourselves a lot, and there have been times when we’ve neglected our family mission and found ourselves in over our heads with busyness.
It’s when we are in the trenches of a too-busy season that I have most noticed the toll it takes on our marriage. We become snappy with each other, too stressed to speak kindly, and too hurried to slow down and dwell on the spiritual matters at hand.
These aren’t just patterns the grown-ups of our house develop. It’s alarming how quickly the tension of an over-planned season takes its toll on the health and well-being of our children.
In The Over-Scheduled Child, Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., writes that kids who are over scheduled “display a range of symptoms from headaches and stomachaches to temper tantrums, an inability to concentrate in school, and sleeping problems. In the long run, it may be harder for them to make confident choices and decisions about what they want to do on their own.” As parents, we must stop and think: If these are the physical manifestations of stress coming from a too-busy schedule, what is going on internally that has the potential for even longer-lasting negative effects?
A Countercultural Example
Navigating a schedule packed with activities is certainly not a topic dealt with directly in the Scripture, but there is wisdom to be found there that speaks to how we can respond to our culture’s constant beckoning to do more, be more, and take on more.
Time and time again, the words of Jesus went directly against the culture of that age. Whether he was encouraging his friends to with Roman soldiers or teaching that whispered in a closet is far more meaningful than one yelled in the streets, Jesus was always leading his followers on a path that was inherently countercultural.
What if we took up that spirit of pushing back against our culture and applied it to parenting? What would that mean for how we guide and direct the way our children spend the precious time they have been given?
In the absence of too much going on, we might find kids who have time to lie in the grass and ponder the wonders of God’s creation. We might find our children with a stack of blank paper and an arsenal of colored pencils, dreaming and scheming up plots far beyond the realm of our own creativity. We might find them building relationships with the kid down the street or kicking around a soccer ball in the backyard just for fun—not keeping score!
I like to think that it is in these vast expanses of free time that our children—no matter how young or old they are—experience a unique kind of freedom: the freedom to discover just who they are and how they fit into the kingdom of God. And as hard as this is for parents, this beautiful season of discovery is more about them and God than it is about them and us.
Being Pro-Free Time
I am all too familiar with the temptation to make sure my children get to have the opportunities that I never had to enroll in all the classes and take all the lessons. It takes a conscious effort to remind myself that they began walking with their loving Creator from the moment of their first breath, and God is more than capable of revealing himself and his plans for their lives directly to them.
Please don’t read these words as being anti-activity. As I mentioned, we now have a daughter in dance, and our oldest daughter is now in a daily, after-school orchestra program. No, I am not anti-activity; I am, however, pro-free time.
As I look back at my own life, it is crystal clear that God often met me in the quiet of not having much to do. Without the burden of being overly busy, I was free to discover more about myself apart from the voices of music teachers or coaches. I had plenty of time to process, digest, discover, and explore the person God designed in me and the path God had designed for me.
In our overly busy culture, free time is a precious thing indeed. We all want to give our children gifts that are good for them—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It may very well be that the most important gift we can give them is a schedule filled with fiercely guarded open spaces, vast stretches of time and space in which they can experience the freedom of coming of age in the unhurried ways of Christ.
Megan Tietz wants you to join her on the front porch for some long talks and iced tea. She lives in the heart of Oklahoma City with her husband, two daughters, and twin sons. Catch up with her at Sorta Crunchy, join the conversation in her Facebook community, or follow her on Twitter at @SortaCrunchy.