Scheduled Canadian kids are not worse off than the unscheduled European ones

I have been thinking a lot about stress, scheduled kids, and why we North Americans may not necessarily be worse off than some of our European parent counterparts. There are many differences, and I can see clearly as a former European child that this is a true statement, at least how it pertains to my family.

I grew up as a completely unscheduled kid in Switzerland in the 70s, so I can relate on many levels what these articles, posts and books talk about when referencing the ‘relaxed parenting style’ of French or other European parents. But this does not mean I agree.

For one thing, we live in a completely different world today. Also, North America is MUCH bigger. Walking across town as a kid in Switzerland isn’t something I can even wrap my head around here…here being a metropolitan city in Canada. Sure, the neighbourhoods are intimate in my area, but my kids aren’t walking across them on their own…

There’s a lot of negativity surrounding the North American mom who has her kids in scheduled activities. I struggle with this, so I’d like to offer a somewhat different perspective.

I am a 40-something, post-secondary-and-returned-to-University-educated, 10-year-work-experienced career woman who is now a stay-at-home-work-at-home mom of two elementary-school-aged kids, a homeowner of an old house with pipe problems, a wife to a husband whose commute takes 2 hours per day, and a pet sitter and owner.

I am also a kid-scheduler.

Listen. I’m tired. Ok? I gave birth to two kids in my late 30s and then stayed home to raise them on a tiny budget in a tiny house with mounting expenses, no fancy vacations (camping is NOT a vacation for me), and practically no paid-for activities for the first 3 or 4 years of their lives. When the money got really tight and we had to do some serious renovating, I dabbed a bit in paid work after putting the kids in a part-time Montessori daycare. It gave me the few hours of freedom to pursue a few work-related things, do some painting, and re-group. I NEEDED that.

Then the kids started public school. They developed interests. They were suddenly old enough for joining lessons (swim, gymnastics, hockey, soccer) without us parents having to participate, and in fact, in some cases, our presence wasn’t even mandatory (although with the under-7 age group the majority of care givers remain on the premises). The kids loved trying new things, and it kept them occupied in ways that wasn’t possible at home…or with me, as often anymore.

I don’t always want to play soccer. Or push a child on a swing for 2 hours. Or prevent serious injury of 4 year olds chasing each other with sticks. Or climb icy rocks at the edge of Lake Ontario…

Sure, it’s easy for anyone to say ‘well when I was a kid we used to play out in the park till dinner time without mom sitting nearby‘. Yep, me too. Except I can’t tell my 5 and 7 year old to go to the park alone today. They can’t. It just isn’t done. I don’t know what would happen if I sent them and they would actually go (not that they would want to). They’ve been raised to this point with someone supervising them all the time: a parent, a teacher, a babysitter, a family member. They don’t go off on their own…is this even legal these days? I do not know. Society has changed, they hear messages, they know that they can’t even walk home from school without a designated adult picking them up. The school won’t release them until they’re in Grade 4 in these parts, and then only with written permission provided by the parent to the school.

I walked to and from Kindergarten at age 5 by myself from the first day. I crossed a street at a cross walk without a guard guarding it (they didn’t have those in Switzerland). Not ever was there anyone accompanying me to school…or recorder practice. Or sometimes even grandma’s house on the other side of town.

Today, when they’re home, they want to play. I send my kids out back. They love it. Till they’ve exhausted all the activity they can accomplish in a postage-size, big city backyard. Then they play out front…but there’s a sidewalk and a street with parked cars there….gotta keep an eye and ear so they won’t suddenly dash in front of a moving car when their ball rolls into the street. Next, they want to go to the park, for a bike ride, to such and such’s house, to the library….and I have to go with them.

Someone has to take them where they want to go. Such much for freedom.

But it’s all good. I’m not complaining about the activity I participated with my kids in. I enjoyed it. I did and I do.

But now I’m tired. Have I mentioned this before? It’s been 8 years and counting. The kids have grown…and I’m older.

Then there’s winter. Winter is….doable. We are an outdoorsy Canadian family and we have appropriate clothing to accommodate for outdoor play in all types of weather..

But.

It’s not fun when there’s no snow and the thick clothing layers prevent easy movement. You can’t bike when it’s that cold, or if there’s snow and ice. You can’t play with the sled unless there is enough snow, and that’s only fun if there’s a hill and you’re not stuck pulling the other kid all the time. There’s no hill in the backyard. Building forts and snowmen is great fun when there is fresh snow at the beginning of the season, but that too fizzes out after a while. And no one enjoys hanging around outside when it’s -19 degrees Celsius.

They want to go skating. Sledding. Come with us! Help us build an ice rink! No they don’t want to go for a walk. They want to do something FUN…and they need HELP.

They always need help.

So I gotta take them. Or one of us does.

As I said, winter is a tough season. Looking at the post-Xmas school term I think to myself: put them in some activities. It gets them active, out of the house (and my hair), and I don’t have to do the activity with them all the time.

So they’ve got a full schedule for this term. So what. It works for us. It may sound daunting, and it did to me too when I first looked at my carefully colour-coordinated online calendar, but it hasn’t been too bad. It has worked really well for this time of year, for us.

Here’s what we do at a glance:

  • He has a free ball hockey drop-in program on Monday night. Weather permitting we can walk across the park, otherwise we drive the 5 minutes to drop him off (or stay and use the other gym for playing with the other kid). The option is there to not stay, and that is what I like.
  • Tuesday they’re in swimming. It’s only a half hour lesson, but again, gives them something active to do,and they swim at the same time, which is bonus for the parents. Only one of us takes them, and we take turns, so that the other parent can stay home alone for an hour.
  • Wednesday the girl child has a 45 minute soccer session to which I can take the older kid because again, the adjacent gym is free and there’s always someone in there with an extra ball. I get to sit (or play with him) and they’re once again busy. What else would we do Wednesday night? So far this season, they’ve stayed to play after school exactly twice – no one likes to hang out in the school yard during a winter storm. So the kids are super-active and bouncing off the wall once we get home…which is why Wednesday night became soccer night.
  • Thursday Sonja has a gymnastics session and I often get a chance to pick up groceries during that time, and still catch her for part of her training. She smiles and waves at me when I get back, clearly happy I get to witness some of her, um, stunts. I drop her off most days, and other days I stay and watch. Sometimes I bring a computer and do some work…again, it’s an option.
  • And the boy has hockey nightly on Thursday and Friday, which is also easy since I can take Sonja with me to the rink. There are ALWAYS siblings at the rink, which serves her social requirements very well while I sit and watch my boy practice or play.

It works. It may sounds stressful on the planning side, but it works. It may sound hectic and chaotic, but it isn’t if everyone does what they’re designated job is. (me – make supper in timely fashion, boy – do homework in timely fashion, girl – set table or whatever).

When the busy and long winter season is over, and the weather improves, the activities will drop off again. To a degree. Because we will be able to go further with less gear and equipment on foot, on the bike, just around the neighbourhood. Freedom is easier to enjoy in warm weather. :)

So while I sit and type out all this activity we currently have going on, I remind myself of the quote I read from one of those french mothers: “kids need time to be bored”.

I agree. A degree of boredom stimulates the creative juices in those kids. And looking at my kids, there is no doubt in my mind that their minds are in full creativity force, despite that they are ‘scheduled kids’.

Unfortunately I can’t share their creativity right now. Ben has a hockey game to be driven to, and tomorrow night they’re in swim class. I should get things ready now so we won’t be rushing around when it’s time to leave.

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