Once upon a time there was a world where children spent their out-of-school hours making up their own games, playing on the street with the other kids from their area, entertaining themselves with their siblings and playing board games and card games with mum and dad in the evenings. If they were lucky and their parents were rich enough, they might be offered some sort of music lessons when they were in middle childhood; if they had trouble with Maths or reading, too bad- either mum and dad helped them, or they struggled.
Educational opportunity has improved for children. But there is also such a thing as going too far the other way. James Thurber once wrote a hilarious mock-fable ('The Bear who Let it Alone') about a drunken bear who caused fear and chaos while falling down in a drunken stupor; seeing his error, he reformed his ways and caused fear and chaos while showing off his new exercise regime (the moral of the story being, 'You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backward').
So here we are in the C21st leaning over too far backwards, with parents spending half their lives driving the kids to out-of-school activities- soccer, maths coaching, early music classes, swimming training, reading tutoring, ballet, drama, speech therapy, netball... the list goes on... all supposedly in the name of giving their children vital opportunities, while those same children are starved of time for unstructured fun with their peer group and family.
What does this whirlwind world look like to a child? And which of these activities are really valuable? How much is too much?
You've probably heard this before- children need time to be children. Children need time for free open-ended play, time to think, time to get bored enough to be creative. You are doing them a great disservice if you shove all their out-of-school time into pre-packed boxes, and you're making your own life a misery if you're always on the road (not to mention the damage your vehicle is doing to the ozone layer).
If your child is doing one or two activities after school that they enjoy, well, good for you- great work. If they (and you) squeeze in three or four because they love them all and just can't bear to give anything up, I'm striking you a medal right now; your child is probably very bright and needs lots of extension because school isn't providing enough, or maybe they're just very social and that's where their friends are- fine, if you can stand it!
But if your child never has a free moment to be a kid and all those activities are mostly down to what you think he or she needs to do, if your child has to be dragged from activity to activity... you need to rethink and make some serious modifications to your kid's lifestyle before you do some damage.
How do you evaluate out-of-school activities, so you can keep the good stuff and cut the rest? Here's some help for you.
Developmental needs and children's interests
Children's development is often classified into certain areas for the benefit of student teachers and carers- areas like the cognitive (thought processes and learning), communicative, social-emotional, physical, spiritual-moral and creative. When you choose where to support or 'stretch' your child by offering an opportunity out of school, you need to consider two things- your child's developmental needs in these learning areas, and your child's interests.
Note that your own interests and aspirations for the child don't get a mention here. Don't crush your baby by shoving your dreams onto their shoulders! That burden is way too heavy, and you may unbalance their development.
There are certain stimuli your child really needs for normal development which can't be covered by structured activities. Relaxed time with her friends is needed for social development, so if your child is constantly in one-to-one situations with a tutor, sitting in a classroom or alone with a book studying, you need to change something. Feeling like she 'fits in' somewhere in the social structure of her world is important- so if all her peers play soccer in the park or just hang out together playing online games after school, that might be much more important to her right now than going to yet another class. Sure, you might need to put some boundaries around the time she spends doing some activities (for example, the Korean experience has shown that gaming can be addictive), but for heavens' sake allow her some free play of her own choice with her peers.
Similarly, some structured activities are an imperative for your child's health, socialisation and safety. Swimming lessons are vital in Australia, where child drownings continue to break hearts every year. Speech therapy for a child with communication difficulties is vital to their socialisation and happiness. These types of supportive extra activity need to be kept up regardless of any protests from your child, though you may need to shop around for a better teacher if they are resisting. I nearly drowned at 6 thanks to a careless swimming teacher; be vigilant.
Other structured activities can be enriching, but optional. For example, sending the kids to Sunday School might be important to you, but remember that children learn their moral code from what they experience in life, not through being lectured- you might get a lot more value from spending Sunday morning just talking with them about your own feelings, history and resultant beliefs, or spending quiet time together as a family talking about the world over breakfast. Ballet or piano lessons or drama class can be an exciting moment in a child's week if the child is passionate about the activity- but ballet AND piano lessons AND drama class? Watch that it's your child steering the cab, not you.
A child who simultaneously tries every activity that 'might be fun' will end up stressed and exhausted, and so will you. A child who has too much on will also not achieve to her potential in most (or all) of the activities. You need to choose one or two activities at a time, based on your child's interests.
For example, if your 3-year-old drives you mad by playing the drums on your saucepans day in and day out, early music classes for 20 minutes a week might be a wonderful enrichment for him. Children will usually tell you, in words or actions, what interests them right now; your children's teachers can be helpful in identifying potential talents which they might enjoy extending.
Older children may be quite fickle, so try to sign up for things one term or season at a time; make a contract with your child to stick it out and give it a fair trial before quitting and trying something else, if she thinks she's made the wrong choice.
Cognitive and communicative activities
A child who can't read or do maths to her normal age standard is going to suffer educationally. A child who can't speak clearly is going to suffer socially and emotionally. Out-of-school help with these problems is absolutely necessary, and the earlier the better.
On the other hand, if you get your teenager a personal maths coach because he only scored 85% last exam and you think he should be getting 100%, you need to get a life of your own and take that heavy burden off your poor child. Fair enough if he wants the coach because the lofty ambitions are his, not yours; talk to your child. But if he resists (whether actively by telling you, or passively by not performing), maybe you're unbalancing his development- you're certainly messing up his emotions and self-esteem, and an adolescent with a Petrie dish full of resentment is going to become a behavioural problem to you one day. What is he missing out on socially while you've got him doing infinite trig calculations beyond his school work? Will you only love him if he's perfect?
Have you ever been to a doctor who seemed to have absolutely no social skills? Most of us have. Sure, they may know their subject so well that they never have to check a text book, but personally I'd rather have a serious illness managed by someone who was a functional member of the human race (and who realised they were fallible, so checked those books for updates now and then). Turning your child into a professional student at the expense of their learning experiences in functioning within society is NOT constructive. What's the point of having a six-digit yearly income if nobody likes you, because you're way behind in learning how to form a relationship?
In between these extremes we have a variety of trendy get-your-kids-ahead classes like Kumon. Yes, they can be great for kids who like that sort of thing, but don't flog it if they're not enjoying it, please! There's a reason why school starts and ends at a certain time and doesn't go all weekend as well- it's to allow children to balance their development of many skills in a structured situation with the development of other, equally important skills in less structured environments. Don't wreck the balance. Yes, good maths skills are great for the self-confidence- but so are many other activities which your child might enjoy much more, and which might have additional developmental benefits in other areas. Try not to get too specialised too soon. If your child's a mathematical genius, it will become evident without you pushing her- in fact you won't be able to stop her.
A child who (for example) can't run in a straight line and falls over his own feet at 5 years old probably needs professional help with his physical development; physical therapy in the early years can be vital to normal development, so definitely go for it if your child is recommended for and referred to professional help by his doctor or teacher. I'd call that a health imperative, not an extra-curricular activity. If you think the teacher or doctor has it wrong, go anyway- the professional will soon sort it out, and a parent's judgement can be clouded by emotional involvement or lack of experience of the norms at their child's age level.
A child who is constantly on the go physically and wears you out every day may well need the extension and structure of some sporting or physical-artistic activities. There's much to be said for Little Athletics, soccer and dance lessons for children like this, but for heaven's sake ASK them what they want to do. Sport can also be a great social experience- or a terrible one, depending on your child's ability, the nature of the other kids, their parents' temperaments and the style of coach you score. Keep an eye on your child's reactions, talk to them if you see misery, encourage them if it's a minor glitch, but pull them out if necessary. Competitive sports can be a nightmare for a child who just isn't that way inclined. Teams are sometimes intensely cruel to kids who just can't play at the same standard.
Oh, and my personal opinion is that parents who scream abuse at their child from the edge of the field should be lined up and shot, so don't join this club please. If you can't control yourself, go home and come back after the final whistle blows.
If your family has a fairly sedentary lifestyle and you think sending Little Johnny off to sport at the weekend (regardless of his lack of interest) is the answer, then think again; you all need to get off your butts, not just post your kid into the Saturday sport pigeon hole. Get on bikes, take a walk in the bush or to the shops instead of driving, put on some crazy music and dance around the living room.
This is particularly crucial if you have an overweight child who hates exercise; she needs to feel part of a supportive group while exercising, and the best supportive group she can get is a FAMILY- shoving her into some class she hates after school is NOT going to do it for her, unless of course you can spend enough time searching with her for something physical that she really enjoys. You can do lots of activity at home, you know. Would she like to make a vegie garden in the back yard, and grow her own food? Would she like to get up a ladder and repaint her bedroom in her choice of colours? You don't have to rely on paid strangers to offer your child extension opportunities.
Ballet, drama, music, art... these are all wonderfully enriching activities for a child who is interested in them. Forgive me if I now have a rant about parents who insist on sending their child to out-of-school 'enrichment' lessons regardless of the child's level of interest.
In the days when I was a high school teacher, people often used to ask me why I didn't just teach private piano students instead of teaching class music. They assumed this would be easier, I think. Let me tell you now, teaching half-hour after half-hour of children who don't want to be there is my idea of HELL. Every week, the same mistakes; every week, the slumped shoulders and sulky attitude; every week, the vain attempts to create some sort of positive dynamic while tied to the parents' aspirations of exam success. TORTURE.
And not just torture for me- torture for the child, too. Put yourself in their place for a moment... imagine that you have just been sentenced to half an hour every night of solving the same four quantum physics equations (that you don't understand and aren't the least bit interested in) until you get them right. You will be tested on them every week in another half-hour session, and your parents are paying a lot of money for you to be tested like this (because they wish they had had the opportunity to become a quantum physicist when they were a child, or had worked harder when they had that chance). You are doomed to failure, because you don't like it and never will. The numbers don't mean anything to you, and the other symbols- well, they're incomprehensible. Even if you ever solve the equations, they'll only be replaced by new ones, so why try at all?
The whole time you're staring at these equations, you're aware that your peers are at the pub or at a café with friends, having a lovely time.
Having fun within this little fantasy? No? Then why are you torturing your child?? You're burdening their childhood with your own unrealistic expectations, plus giving them a dose of personal guilt for not meeting those expectations. Quit it!
By all means enrol your child for a term or so of introductory drama, art, dance or music- I know from my working experience that there is much to be said for music education in all areas of a child's development, and every child deserves an opportunity to find out if creative extension feels good to them.
But for heaven's sake, if it's not working, stop doing it. No child ever became an artistic prodigy through their parents' prodding- the drive is internal. If they're into it, you won't be able to tear them away from their piano or their dance barre or their guitar or their easel. And after that first experience, even if they reject the experience first go, quite a few may express an interest in resuming lessons later on. Give them a taste, and if they don't like the flavour, please don't force-feed them.
Physical and emotional safety
Choose your child's out-of-school teachers and coaches carefully. In a school situation, all teachers have a working-with-children police check; many extra-curricular teachers and coaches have just set themselves up in business or volunteered for the job without anyone looking over them for suitability, so keep your eyes and ears open and talk to your child casually about the lessons.
We all know something about the dangers of physical and sexual abuse in these settings, but have you thought about the emotional suitability of some volunteers and private teachers? Here's a cautionary tale.
I started learning the piano when I was 5, with a local self-proclaimed teacher who we'll call Mrs Ghastly- an apt pseudonym. My brother, who was four years older than me and prodigiously talented (he was composing prize-winning string quartets by the time he was 12 or so), learnt from her too. I spent every Wednesday morning before school having my self-confidence and personality attacked; no doubt her experience with my brother (which I suspect flattered the standard of her teaching immensely, due to his inner drive and natural ability) had led her to expect more of the same, but we are very different animals in many respects (as are many siblings, though foolish teachers often presume them to be identical because they come out of the same gene pool).
I remember sitting waiting for my first lesson while the poor child before me was abused for his imperfections in Mrs Ghastly's gloomy little living room. My sensitive, creative little spirit sucked in the oppressive atmosphere and shuddered back into its shell. I simply couldn't perform music for this person.
I don't remember Mrs Ghastly ever saying anything pleasant or encouraging to me, not even in that first lesson, though she did produce a suitable Ghastly smile and say 'So you're J---'s sister' before we began. From that moment on I was clearly a great disappointment to her. Impatient messages were scrawled all over my music ('F sharp!!!'), but these were nothing compared to the sarcastic verbal messages inflicted on me every time I made a mistake, my poor tight little hands more like clenched fists from the sheer tension of being in the same room as this witch. The shower of invective culminated nearly every Wednesday in me being told viciously that I would never be as good as my brother. She may as well have struck me over the knuckles with a ruler.
Even though Mrs Ghastly had religious tracts and sentimental cards proclaiming God's love adorning her mantelpiece, I never felt anything but guilt and misery in her presence (with the odd smattering of indignant rage at the injustice of being compared unfavourably to a musical genius nearly twice my age). It was my introduction to the hypocrisy that hides behind the name of religion in some people. Those older ex-music students who actually suffered the ruler on the knuckles at the hands of some piano-teaching convent nun will know exactly what I mean. I dreaded her lessons more than anything else in the world, and was forcibly reminded of them every single day as my well-meaning parents encouraged me to do my piano practice.
After three years I had developed severe psychosomatic stomach aches every Wednesday morning. I loved school, but I was prepared to miss it if it meant I could avoid the weekly torture chamber. Thank heavens my parents got the subliminal message (I never said a word about what happened at my lessons, so they had few clues). Despite them feeling instinctively that I was very musical, they allowed me to stop.
Within four years I had taught myself to read music and play the piano, and when my parents offered me lessons again I jumped at the chance, scored a truly wonderful teacher (who spent a whole year gently undoing some of the damage to my technique caused by the tension in my hands) and went on to make music my career- including playing pop piano by ear in many a restaurant.
But playing classical piano in public has always been a huge trauma for me (I never have a moment's difficulty with singing or speaking in public, in fact I love it). Classical piano exams were the only exams where I ever felt green with nausea before and during the experience. I wonder why? Did Mrs Ghastly's cruelty have an effect on my playing for life? I think it probably did, because my brain freezes over when I look at printed music in public; I spend all my mental energy remembering to relax my hands and staving off fear of failure, instead of concentrating on the music.
Pay attention to your children's reactions! Not every out-of-school teacher is a safe person to inflict on your child. Here endeth the lesson!