The avalanche of brochures offering everything from extra-curricular jewelry making to Zen breathing techniques (no, I’m not kidding) that welcomes back to school every year has become a source of tension in our home. They are the tyranny of opportunity, manifested in a scattering of scraps of A5 paper. And are seen by my daughter (10 years old) as a menu of possibilities, a chance to say yes to life in all its forms.
Left to herself, she filled every waking hour with activities. She currently plays soccer, gymnastics, boxing and tennis every week, with occasional forays into hockey. She’s crazy eager to add cooking, theater and art to the list. I refuse these, on the grounds that I don’t pay her to do things that I can teach her, like cooking, and that I don’t transport her to and from more things.
My sons – 17 and 14 – do less: piano and football for one; boxing and football for each other. But that’s only because they’re older. In their day, they practiced Taekwando, GAA, theater, music and tennis, as well as a multitude of more ephemeral activities that I have forgotten. If someone were to total the time and money involved in all of this, over a 15 year period, I suspect it would eclipse almost all other household expenses.
Not to mention the domestic inconveniences. There are days when dinner is eaten at three – or even four – different times by different people on the way to various activities. This definitely influences the cooking: – no soufflés (alas)! There have been times when I have turned down social events because the logistics of three rounds of football practice at different times and in different places on a particular night are just too much to put off, and on weekends. ends were certainly reduced, because of the matches. Saturday and Sunday morning. My husband, more dedicated to ‘not letting the team down’ than I am, is known to go to, say, Longford for a weekend on a Friday, then return at dawn on Saturday for a game with a child. , down again, then again on Sunday morning for a game with another child.
So why? Why do I – why do any of us – abandon myself to this?
There are many reasons, and not all of them are as pure as “because he / she likes it”. Yes, there is that. But, let’s not forget, I am a mother – and therefore a sophisticated machine for the relentless optimization of childhood opportunities. There is a very conscious effort on my part to get them to do things that I think are of benefit – psychological and / or physical. I strongly believe in the character building properties of team sports, for example (hence all football). I also admit that I think tennis is a useful social skill. The piano is self-explanatory, I’m sure.
In addition, there is the feeling that they should have a larger social network than that provided by the school. And, for those who aren’t particularly academic, the chance to shine elsewhere – on a pitch, on stage, in an art class – is highly desirable in terms of self-confidence.
These are all considerations that cross my mind when the avalanche of leaflets arrives, that thwart my instinct to say “no” to everything. And I’m not the only one weighing the benefits against the high cost (financial and physical).
Eimear Griffin, an elementary school teacher and mother of three ages 10, 8 and 6 says there was a fair amount of disclosure after the first lockdown: “We had so much more time. I wasn’t always looking at the clock, waiting for the next thing to take them to. There was a feeling of ease. Since the company has reopened, I find that we are much more frantic.
So, what activities are his children doing?
“Football, hockey, tennis, GAA, swimming and piano. I think we don’t overdo it – I’m careful what they do – but then when I recite this list, I wonder… ”she laughs. “Every day of the week there is at least one child doing an activity, and sometimes all three have something. Our adorable childminder carries the brunt of driving during the week while we’re at work, but there’s plenty on the weekends too. We are lucky to have two cars; it would not be possible otherwise, and I am very aware of that.
What advantages does she see from it?
“Introducing them to new skills, developing their abilities in different areas – for example, learning to work as a team, to persevere – to improve confidence, discipline, mental health benefits… that sort of thing. We’re not kidding ourselves that we’re creating future Olympic champions, but if they’re happy, if they enjoy what they’re doing and pick up some skills, then that’s great. And they’re happy – even on those crazy winter nights, when I tell them it’s time to get ready for training, they still want to go.
It is, says Eimear, “hours off the couch; hours away from screens, both of which are good. But I am careful not to overload them. They also need time for themselves, where they do nothing. Time to be bored is very important. If I compare with other families I know, I don’t think we overdo it. Everyone has a personal comfort zone in terms of what’s going on in the family, and it’s important to stick with it.
What does she do about the hot-cold attitude children can have that after begging to be allowed to do a particular activity, they then decide they don’t like it?
“They are not allowed to quit smoking,” says Eimear. “They have to finish the course. It’s fine if they don’t want to do another one, but they have to finish what they started.
For kids who naturally gravitate towards sports, there are plenty of options that are highly visible and reasonably inexpensive. For those with a more intellectual or creative bent, finding employment can be more difficult. As Leah Kennedy, mother of three, aged 14, 12 and 8, says: “There is more to do. I found a great science camp for my oldest son, but it took a long time and a lot of questions.
His three are involved in art, music, dance and swimming. “Nobody wants to swim,” she remarks with a laugh, “but they have to; it’s essential.
So why? “Partly you want to expand as many horizons as possible for them. Sometimes it’s because a particular area isn’t covered elsewhere in their life – for example, one of my daughters had a teacher for a year who didn’t do any art at all, so I got her a class art to fill this gap. Doing different things means they meet people they otherwise wouldn’t meet. But it’s also because you want them to live more than you have. Extracurricular activities weren’t that important when I was a kid, so I want them to have these opportunities that I didn’t have. And, if I’m honest, to get them out of your hair for longer. But that only works if you don’t carry them.
Leah limits her children to three strict activities each. “That includes the dreaded swimming, so basically they can pick two.” She deliberately keeps one day a week free from everything – a day off for everyone. “Thursdays are free days, and we all look forward to them. It is very important for them to have the time to do nothing.
Leah works for herself – as a facialist, practicing a technique called Japanese Cosmos Lifting (thenakedface.ie) – and says, “I definitely had to adapt my professional life to meet the needs of my children. I wouldn’t be able to carry them if I still worked in the job I had before the kids. I’m glad I found a balance. It took some sacrifice, but it’s worth it if they’re happy to expand their interests. Except for swimming. Remember, no one likes to swim.