You Really Don’t Want Your Child to Do Everything

Sane scheduling

sane schedulingIn Sane Scheduling Part One: How to Protect Downtime (and Why It’s So Important) I described your child’s need for PDF: Playtime, Family Time and Down time. You need that time too. Parents need time able to breathe at the end of the day instead of tuning in tightly to tomorrow’s schedule and who will go where and who will pick up who and when. Remember the part about there being only so many hours in a day? There is also only one you, and there are only whatever resources you have to move your child around in the world—you, or your partner, or a carpool (that you or your partner create and coordinate with) or a babysitter (directed by you or your partner) or your father or … you get the picture. Even once a child can move around himself, there are resources of gas and time and vehicles and support involved.

Making a schedule that works for everyone, especially in a big family, demands thought and compromise. You can never just say “sure, you can join the math club.” You need to know what that means, when it happens, whether there’s some requirement that parents provide snacks or take turns supervising, whether there are weekend competitions or events involved. Even if each child’s schedule appears, at a glance, to be perfectly reasonable—soccer twice a week, say, and one piano lesson—multiply that by 4 and the logistics change dramatically.

In our family, I schedule, and help the kids schedule, with three sometimes-competing goals in mind. I want my children to be able to choose to participate in things they enjoy; I want us to have dinner together at home most nights; and I want there to be one afternoon a week where there are no activities for anyone.

If you’ve done the math, it’s clear that this isn’t easy. That’s where the compromises come in. All of my children play hockey, which means that during that single season, goals two and three get shaky. Because I know hockey season looms, I’ve learned to say no to serious spring and fall sports. To me, all sports engagement is purely for fun and recreation, but any parent knows that there are differences in commitment depending on where you play. The vocabulary changes (club, travel, recreational, house) but the real differences are found in the number of practices and games and the travel expected. We keep spring and fall sports low key and close to home. (Of course, the option to choose something besides hockey is always open.)

For meals, we make a real effort. We shift times and eat early or late. Even if children are home with no parents, they eat together at the table. We might plan a dinner out if that’s what gets the most of us around the same meal at the same time. We don’t get many afternoons at home, but if only one child has a practice, or the weather is arguable at an exhausted moment midseason, we let hockey go.

The most important thing to remember is that you, and your children, aren’t filling empty time when you choose another activity. You’re replacing PDF. Physically, we could do more. But I’ve learned that letting things happen just because they technically fit into our schedule is the first stop on the road to madness. Suddenly, the parent-drivers are never home. Invitations, for children or family, nearly always have to be declined. The house is a mess, the food from the freezer and frazzled is the word of the day. Some weeks are like that—but not all weeks. Not on my watch.

I—a little famously—refuse to be busy. I’ve said so before:

I hate being busy. Busy implies a rushed sense of cheery urgency, a churning motion, a certain measure of impending chaos, all of which make me anxious. Busy is being in one place doing one thing with the nagging sense you that you ought to be somewhere else doing something different. I like to be calm. I like to have nothing in particular to do and nowhere in particular to be. And as often as I can — even when I’m dropping a child off here or there, or meeting a deadline, or waving in the carpool line — I don’t think of myself as busy. I’m where I need to be, doing, for the most part, what I want to do.

Some of the secret to not-busy scheduling is in the details. It’s in allowing more than enough time to get places and preparing for things to go wrong. If the second child’s pick up is five minutes after the first and five miles away, tell the child and the adults involved that whoever is driving is going to be late, every time. That takes the pressure off, and lets you ask how to make that easier. If the adult in charge has a rush-out deadline, now you know. Maybe another caregiver can sit with your child for five minutes, or maybe you’re going to have to figure out a different plan. Taking the time to sort these things out, or just to identify trouble spots for you or your caregiver before they come up, makes all the difference.

Some of the secret to not-busy scheduling, though, is in the attitude. There will be weeks this winter when I am watching half of one child’s game at one rink and half of another’s in the rink one town over. Weeks when it will take longer to do the emailing to arrange the carpool than it would to just drive the child, if only there weren’t three other children needing to be driven at the same time. Weeks when my only free time is the 20 minutes I can grab at Starbucks in between dropping a child at the rink to get geared up and the time the game starts.

I have decided to love that season. To love the family effort it takes to get everyone where he or she has to be, and the time in the car, and the use of my list of dinners that can be started at 8 am and eaten at 7 pm. I embrace the knitting I do at games, the occasional hockey hotel, and that one taco place we can only eat at when the game is at that one rink. I do not embrace team lunches at Buffalo Wild Wings, but I appreciate a day where that’s all I have to complain about, and watching my children cheer on a sibling—even if they’re only at the game because there was no way to get them home—is among my favorite things.

That’s hockey’s lovable side, but the attitude extends beyond that. I didn’t choose the emergency vet visit, but I chose the dog who found the porcupine. I didn’t choose this rushed deadline, but I chose the career that brought it my way. The dishwasher, the dentist, the business trip—this is what I wanted. No matter how full a day is, I’m not going to rush through it, wishing my life away. I can’t always control our schedule. I can at least try to control how I follow it.

Have you got a story to tell about balancing a child’s desire to do all the things with what’s right for your family? Have you found ways help your child do more than anyone would think humanly possible, or to find her own limits? I’d love to hear your story! Email me at and include Sane Scheduling in the subject line. Thanks!