In this week's New York Times Magazine, Lisa Belkin suggests that the age of over-parenting may be coming to a close.
I've never been much of a subscriber to this philosophy. Even as a first-time mother, when I knew nothing, I thought those Baby Einstein video tapes (DVDs now, I guess), were bullshit. They may be entertaining to a baby, but so is their own foot, or a box of tissues.
When Sarah was a baby, I experienced my share of guilt if I did some cleaning, or god-forbid, sat on the couch and read while she happily amused herself, with books, or blocks, or that box of tissues. (I've always thought that a version of the tissue box, which a child could empty, and then you could neatly refold and reload, would make a great baby toy. That, and dust cloth clothing, for crawlers. Can you imagine how much time you could save dust mopping?)
But as a new mother, I was worried. Was I a bad mother? Was I not engaging with my child enough?
I discussed this at great length with my therapist during the first year of Sarah's life, and eventually, she (my therapist, not Sarah) asked me some simple questions. Or, more likely, I was finally able to hear the questions she'd been asking me for the better part of a year.
"Does Sarah seem happy, when she's doing these things?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered.
"When she is upset, or needs something, does she let you know?"
"And do you listen to her then, and attend to her needs?"
"Well, actually, yes, I do!"
Her point was, if you are a good listener, and trust yourself, your children will make clear what they need from you. Since I got this through my sometimes thick head, I have tried to listen to my children as best I can. It is true that I've gotten better at this as I've had more kids and become a more experienced mother (poor first child, the guinea pig), to let my children guide me in terms of what they want, and need.
My wise therapist also once said to me something along the lines of, "A broken arm heals faster than a broken heart." This is not to say I would knowingly put my children in harm's way. But once they have the ability, it is better, for instance, even though it is hard, to hang back a bit at the playground, and allow your child to stumble, and perhaps even fall, rather than hold their hand every step of the way. Trust your children to make some of their own mistakes, and hopefully, to learn from them. I believe over-parenting is an unfortunate corollary of well meaning parents who do not trust their own instincts, and try to make up for this by lavishing too much fill-in-the-blank:--love, toys, activities, unnecessary advice--upon their children.
The same is true for over-scheduling, the evil twin of over-parenting. As my children have gotten older, I've shied more and more away from over-scheduling, for reasons of logistics, finances and plain selfishness. What I really think children should do after school is play. On my ideal afternoon, my kids spend a good amount of time after school running around on the playground. Then, we come home, have a snack, and they do their homework. Then, into the backyard to play, with friends, their siblings, or both.
I try to limit my children to one activity per child. I have three children, and it is not my idea of a fun to shuttle my kids around from activity to activity day after day. Even trying to stick to this formula of one activity per child, there is still a fair amount of shuttling involved; it is an unavoidable part of the job I signed up for.
Nor can I afford to pay for each of them to take an unlimited combination of dance, gymnastics, music, theater, swimming, martial arts, rocket building, soccer, Mandarin...the list could go on indefinitely, and get more and more specialized, I'm sure.
From an early age, Sarah had a keen interest, and talent for swimming, so this has been her activity. It didn't happen the same way for Gabriel, who studies karate, which I fought against for a while, because I didn't want to do any more shuttling. But based on some sensory integration issues, which were affecting his confidence and self-esteem, combined with a lack of interest in sports, and David's respect for the martial arts, we enrolled him in karate, which he truly enjoys, and which does much to reinforce the things we try to impart to our children, about citizenship, respect, patience, and community.
I will admit that sticking to one activity per child is a challenge. There is Hebrew School, and speech therapy for Gabriel, and there go 2 afternoons a week right there. Plus, as they have gotten older, my children have become interested in taking up musical instruments. So Sarah (and I) study guitar, and Gabriel, who has always seemed to have an affinity for music, is hankering for piano lessons, something we will try to make happen in the fall.
Sacha, as the youngest child, gets nothing yet. And I do not feel guilty about this.
I believe in the value of indolence. It is okay for children to be bored sometimes, to putter about, and figure out how to entertain themselves. Let them find their own passions, rather than have me force some upon them. I am their mother, not their cruise director. Over-parenting,and over-scheduling deny children this opportunity, and make me worry if the ability to amuse oneself, an invaluable skill that will pay dividends throughout one's life, is becoming a lost art.