“Mom, can I have ukulele lessons?”
I nearly spit out my coffee when my daughter, barely 5 years old, snuck up behind me and made this request.
“Honey, between swimming, dance, and choir, you already have so much going on. You would have to give something up if you really want to play the ukulele.”
My daughter pondered this for a minute, put her hands up to my face, and said, “But I don’t want to give any of it up. And I’d really like to go back to gymnastics, too. I want to do more flips over the bar.”
I sighed a definitively audible sigh, hung my head, and felt a little dead inside. “We’ll see, honey,” I told her. “Maybe we can think about it, but we’ll talk about it some more later.” Slightly dejected, but unwilling to admit defeat, my daughter walked away muttering about how badly she missed going to gymnastics and how excited she was about new music lessons, and if only she could play the ukulele.
And there you have it. I have a kid who really, really likes activities. And I have become THAT mother who overschedules her kid.
When I first started teaching nearly 11 years ago, I was mortified by the number of activities in which my students were involved. Between organized sports, music lessons, charitable projects, and anything in between, my students were stretched thin. It enraged me. They were tired in class, had a hard time managing their schedules, and some couldn’t keep up with their reading assignments because their evenings were split between piano, karate, and dance lessons. “What kind of parent does this to their kids?” I decried as I threw my hands up in the air. It seemed so ridiculous.
Why not let their kids sit at home, watch a little television, play outside, read a book, and do their homework? Isn’t that what kids are supposed to do? There was no need to be enrolled in three sports teams, piano/violin/piccolo lessons, Chinese and Arabic tutoring sessions, and culinary classes while juggling community service, trips to NASA, NIH grant-funded project proposals, and prepping their Fulbright applications as middle schoolers, right? It was inane, overwhelming, and senseless. Why not let their kids be kids?
And then I became a parent, and suddenly, the picture got a lot more complicated. I gave birth to a daughter who thrives in extracurriculars. She’s a teacher’s dream — (mostly) attentive, enthusiastic, willing to take risks while being a rule follower, and committed. And she wants to try EVERYTHING. And as her mother, I want to give her everything. Dance lessons for the budding ballerina? Absolutely. Choir and piano for a future prima donna? Of course! Swimming lessons to make sure she doesn’t drown in a pool? No brainer! But without even knowing it, I fell down the rabbit hole, and it was so easy to get trapped into over-committing a child who really seems to want it.
But childhood is fleeting, and my daughter is just as happy at home creating magnificent art projects out of ribbon and construction paper, entertaining her baby sister with peekaboo, or blowing bubbles in our backyard as she is practicing fifth position at the barre. And as the adult, it’s my job to model the importance of down time and unstructured play. And at some point, she needs to learn that, for her sanity, she cannot do it all.
So, to my dearest daughter: Ukulele will have to wait, for now. We’ll explore gymnastics another day, if the time is right. Go outside, build that fairy garden you’ve been planning in your mind, and enjoy being 5. Exploring the world doesn’t have to happen in 45-minute structured blocks of time, and over-scheduling you won’t get you further ahead at the end of the day. And I will continue to try to help you balance it all, no matter how challenging it may be for me to ask you to take a deep breath and a step back.