How children thrive when we give them unscheduled free time

Kids need plenty of time to simply be kids. This is how they learn and grow.

How children thrive when we give them unscheduled free time

A 7-year-old girl sits in my office, playing with a squeeze ball we made together. She’s chatty and appears happy. From the outside looking in, you might wonder why she needs weekly therapy. She enjoys her time spent in my office because we play while we talk and she knows that I will listen.

At home, she’s a completely different kid. She acts out. She has angry outbursts. She takes her feelings out on her sisters. She’s not happy.

It takes her a few weeks to open up, but when she does it’s clear that this child is under stress. As it turns out, she fits in her therapy appointments in between math tutoring and violin lessons. Throughout the week she has multiple practices for two different soccer teams, dance class, church choir and art class.

She’s exhausted. She feels constant pressure to perform well in all of her activities and, as it turns out, those angry outbursts occur when she hits her limit—typically at the very end of the day.

Although this particular situation might sound extreme, it really only amounts to one after school activity each day, with the exception of her one very busy day.

Many kids fill their days with sports and activities, sometimes to the detriment of healthy sleep habits and free time. In fact, kids today are so overscheduled that childhood stress appears to be the new normal. We’ve become a society of over-doing, and with that comes over-parenting.

Long gone are the days of wandering the neighborhood in search of friends and time spent lost in self-discovery. Kids today are bombarded with adult-directed activities and their days are often planned from breakfast to bedtime.

In our collective effort to present kids with endless opportunities, we’ve forgotten one very important fact: Kids need plenty of time to simply be kids. This is how they learn and grow.

When I help parents find a healthy balance within their families, common themes emerge. Many parents over-schedule and over-parent because they are afraid their kids won’t be able to keep up with other kids if they don’t.

They want their kids to succeed. They want to pave the way to a lifetime of happiness by guiding them through the learning process step-by-step. They solve problems for their kids so their kids won’t be stuck with feelings of frustration or discomfort.

The problem, of course, is that the more parents interfere with childhood, the less independent, successful, and happy kids actually are.

Here’s what happens when parents learn to take a step back:

Passion emerges

That seemingly elusive passion that parents love to hunt down by way of extracurricular classes and sports is best found by giving kids time to play and fill their own time. When kids have time to make their own discoveries, engage in self-directed play, and cure their own bouts of boredom, they find their inner sparks. They figure out what they’re interested in and what they need to do to develop those interests.

Empathy grows

A large barrier to empathy is living a scripted life. When kids lack time to develop their own relationships and work through conflict and obstacles independently, they lose out on opportunities to practice empathy. When parents jump in to solve problems and keep their kids busy to avoid boredom, kids lack the time and space to learn to work through their emotions.

Empathy develops when kids are allowed to feel their feelings, play with friends without adult direction, and spend time lost in play.

Happiness increases

“I just want my child to be happy” is a phrase uttered by many parents, and for good reason. Negative emotions feel scary and overwhelming, but positive ones feel calming. The thing is, no one is happy every minute of every day, and working through those pesky negative emotions is the best way to experience true happiness.

When parents step back from the need to micromanage and over-schedule, kids are able to bring all of their emotions to the surface and work through them. Childhood marks a crucial period of social-emotional development. We can’t skip over it in the name of creating super-

kids with bright futures. We have to slow down and let them grow and learn at their own pace.

Gratitude blossoms

Lack of gratitude is a common complaint among parents these days. With all of the talk about the importance of practicing gratitude, it can be anxiety-producing when kids seem to lack gratitude. Here’s the catch with gratitude: When kids are constantly put in the position of measuring up (earning high grades, winning trophies, being the best), gratitude gets pushed aside. To raise grateful kids, we need to learn how to slow down and feel grateful for what we already have.

Stress dissipates

I can’t tell you how many parents tell me that busy is better because kids don’t get into trouble when they’re busy. The problem with this theory is that it doesn’t account for the very human need to decompress, spend time alone, and simply slow down. What kids tell me is that they just want time to play.

We are living in a culture that runs on stress from the top down. It’s up to us to change it. We have to teach both how to cope with feelings of stress and what preventive measures they can take to avoid, or decrease, stress. This begins with slowing down, verbalizing feelings, and spending time together. There will be time to hone those natural soccer skills later; for now it’s best to dial back the pressure and focus on the importance of childhood.

Rarely is a woman more concerned with what her body needs than when she's pregnant. We start to question and research everything, right? From swearing off turkey sandwiches to diving down the rabbit hole of prenatal supplements that make up what we lack, the stress of overthinking is real, mama.

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I never wanted to be a mom. It wasn't something I ever thought would happen until I fell madly in love with my husband—who knew very well he wanted children. While he was a natural at entertaining our nephews or our friends' kids, I would awkwardly try to interact with them, not really knowing what to say or do.

Our first pregnancy was a surprise, a much-wanted one but also a unicorn, "first try" kind of pregnancy. As my belly grew bigger, so did my insecurities. How do you even mom when you never saw motherhood in your future? I focused all my uncertainties on coming up with a plan for the delivery of my baby—which proved to be a terrible idea when my dreamed-of unmedicated vaginal birth turned into an emergency C-section. I couldn't even start motherhood the way I wanted, I thought. And that feeling happened again when I couldn't breastfeed and instead had to pump and bottle-feed. And once more, when all the stress from things not going my way turned into debilitating postpartum anxiety that left me not really enjoying my brand new baby.

As my baby grew, slowly so did my confidence that I could do this. When he would tumble to the ground while learning how to walk and only my hugs could calm him, I felt invincible. But on the nights he wouldn't sleep—whether because he was going through a regression, a leap, a teeth eruption or just a full moon—I would break down in tears to my husband telling him that he was a better parent than me.

Then I found out I was pregnant again, and that this time it was twins. I panicked. I really cannot do two babies at the same time. I kept repeating that to myself (and to my poor husband) at every single appointment we had because I was just terrified. He, of course, thought I could absolutely do it, and he got me through a very hard pregnancy.

When the twins were born at full term and just as big as singleton babies, I still felt inadequate, despite the monumental effort I had made to grow these healthy babies and go through a repeat C-section to make sure they were both okay. I still felt my skin crawl when they cried and thought, What if I can't calm them down? I still turned to my husband for diaper changes because I wasn't a good enough mom for twins.

My husband reminded me (and still does) that I am exactly what my babies need. That I am enough. A phrase that has now become my mantra, both in motherhood and beyond, because as my husband likes to say, I'm the queen of selling myself short on everything.

So when my babies start crying, I tell myself that I am enough to calm them down.

When my toddler has a tantrum, I remind myself that I am enough to get through to him.

When I go out with the three kids by myself and start sweating about everything that could go wrong (poop explosions times three), I remind myself that I am enough to handle it all, even with a little humor.

And then one day I found this bracelet. Initially, I thought how cheesy it'd be to wear a reminder like this on my wrist, but I bought it anyway because something about it was calling my name. I'm so glad I did because since day one I haven't stopped wearing it.

Every time I look down, there it is, shining back at me. I am enough.

I Am Enough bracelet 

SONTAKEY  I Am Enough Bracelet

May this Oath Bracelet be your reminder that you are perfect just the way you are. That you are enough for your children, you are enough for your friends & family, you are enough for everything that you do. You are enough, mama <3


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