Ask BBB: Parenting Advice from Betsy Brown Braun

QUESTION: Our son is in first grade and he is in school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and takes lessons or enrichment classes every afternoon until 5 p.m. On the weekends, he has soccer practice and usually a game. He seems to enjoy all of these activities, but I’m worried we might be overbooking him. Do we need to lighten his schedule or is it a good thing to keep him so active?
BBB: There are so many activities and classes that are available to our children these days. It is hard to know what to do and it isn’t uncommon for a parent to want to expose her child to everything.  Maybe she’s a basket weaving prodigy, after all. When your child enjoys it all, knowing what to do is even harder. As parents, it is a joy to be able to provide a child with activities and lessons that bring her such pleasure.
Believe it or not, there are children who sit on the opposite end of the spectrum. These are the kids who don’t want to do any extra-curricular activities, preferring to stay home every day. Their parents wish they were in your shoes.
Helping kids find their “passion” is a hot topic these days. (And if you want to know my take on that, go to http://huff.to/1G48cG9) We do know that a child will need to sample an activity in order to know if he even likes it or wants to pursue it. With that goal in mind, it is certainly reasonable to try out one or two. (Note the use of the words “one or two.”) But finding a passion is not a reason to overindulge in after school activities.
There is also the matter of the activities you insist your child takes versus the ones he wants to take. While he may not actually dislike the have-to activities, his choices usually trump yours.  Often tutoring, developmental interventions, piano or religious school fall into this category.  Do these actually count as extra-curricular activities the child chooses to take?
In the case of your son and his very full dance card, it sounds like there is a crucial element missing from his schedule: down time. Also known as alone time, this is a chunk of time that is unstructured and unplanned. It is when the child is left to his own devices to entertain himself.  Children who do not have enough down time in their lives risk stifling their development of self-reliance and self-sufficiency, to say nothing of imagination.
Down time is crucial to the development of independence. Children who have little down time are the ones who claim to be bored; they don’t learn to play by themselves and often require an adult to entertain and play with them. Alone time is when ideas hatch.
In addition, we know how critical down time is to brain development. In the same way sleep is essential to our growth and development, so down time is essential to the brain. It is in down time that we process and incorporate what we have experienced and learned.  Imagine what happens without down time.  Can you picture water being poured on a bone dry sponge and slipping right off the sides?
Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times, “the space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration – it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Betsy Brown Braun, M.A. is a Child Development and Behavior Specialist (infants to teens), a Parent Educator, and Multiple Birth Parenting Specialist. Betsy consults with parents privately, runs parenting groups, seminars and workshops for parents, teachers, and other professionals.  She is the award-winning author of the bestselling, “Just Tell Me What to Say” and “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” Betsy has been featured on the Today Show, The Early Show and Good Morning America and has been cited in Parents Magazine, Twins Magazine, Family Circle and many more.  Betsy and Ray Braun, Palisades residents for 38 years, are the parents of adult triplets and have three grandchildren, so far.