I remember when I was a new mom and made the decision to stay home full-time with my first-born son. I decided to treat motherhood like a career. I studied parenting books, listened to parenting podcasts, joined mommy groups and filled my days with “enriching activities,” like Book Babies at the library and Kindermusik. My husband would come home from work and ask about my day: I’d proudly tick off all of the things we’d “accomplished.”
As our family grew from three to four and finally to five, I continued to add activities with each additional child. Last summer, I often felt like a pinball: bouncing from one drop-off to the next pick-up. I heard myself bark orders at my kids, “Hurry up and change out of your swimsuit. It’s time for math camp!” “Hustle! We need to eat lunch in the car, so we can to make it to tennis on time.” I would wake up at 5:30 each morning in order to find time to attend a yoga class or to run and shower before swim team at 8 a.m. At the end of each day, I felt exhausted and unfulfilled. I missed the lazy days of summer when my kids were in preschool, back when time was measured by rest break whistles and afternoons included naps at home.
This summer, for the first time, I took a dramatically different approach to scheduling my kids’ activities. First, I told the kids that they weren’t allowed to do swim team. I didn’t want to drag them out of bed each morning at 7:30. And, selfishly, I wanted to eliminate three trips to the pool before 10 a.m. Unlike previous summers, math camp was not offered at our school. Consequently, I eliminated four trips to the school to drop off and to pick up kids after swim team practice. I also told the kids that we were going to skip all summer camps. In the past, my kids signed up for various sport camps and educational camps at local colleges and museums. Instead, each kid picked a single activity for each day…and the rest of the time was free for creativity, reading, biking, swimming and just being kids.
My husband and I plotted out time for old-fashioned family vacations. We went on a road trip to the Black Hills and took hikes, caught fish and visited Mount Rushmore. We spent nearly a week in a cabin without WI-FI or cell phone reception. We played board games, read books, enjoyed campfire s’mores…and each other.
We also spent a week exploring beautiful Oregon as a family. We went rafting, biking and hiking near Mount Hood. The kids swam in the river and jumped off rocks. We visited the Coast and caught crabs, discovered starfish, saw seals and witnessed the majestic beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
The result? We had the best summer ever. It taught me that less is more. I would never argue that kids don’t need a little structure or routine; but, by eliminating all of the extras and allowing my kids time to just be kids, we created a summer that was both restful and “enriching” in a completely different way. The unscheduled time allowed my thirteen-year-old to discover a love for fishing and biking, which gave him a new independence. The unscheduled time provided the opportunity for my twelve-year-old to launch a slime business with a friend; it taught them real-life lessons about profit, loss and successful marketing plans. And, the unscheduled time enabled my seven-year-old to build forts, create Lego action scenes and simply play with friends…something that was difficult to fit into our previously over-scheduled calendar.
This summer, I learned that it’s okay to not fill every free minute of our life with “enriching” activities. I found that there is real value in unstructured playtime. I discovered that it’s okay to carve out a little piece of my day for myself. I also realized that my kids are getting old enough to take on more responsibilities around the house, which is actually a positive parenting move. Yes, this summer taught me a lot of important life lessons. And, I’m sure that if my new-mom self could travel through time and witness my evolved approach to motherhood, she’d think that I was doing everything wrong! The truth: Now, I know better.
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