Why We Kicked Structured Activities For Our Kids To The Curb

KelloggShow Big Family Travels

We broke out of prison. We were lifers, in for the long haul. We bought into the script that had been laid out before us and were “paying our dues”, (this phrase would become akin to nails on a chalkboard for us). We were hook, line and sinker into 9-5 workdays, 1.5 hour commutes, school, PTA and extra-curricular activities.  We were the proverbial Jones’ and we suffered from serious FOMO on behalf of our kids.

I remember taking my oldest daughter, to Gymboree classes. She was … 2. We did exactly what we did at home, we danced to music, we tumbled around on the floor, we laughed and we spent quality time together. But, instead of doing it for free, I paid for it. IN my defense, every one of my friends did so with their kids and I had heard the buzzword “socialization” and “necessary” in the same sentence. This would have been fine, one little class, but as with everything we do, we eventually took it to the extreme.

And, I also remember a couple seasons, after moving to Colorado, when the boys sports overlapped. At this point, we had 6 kids. I would pick my two oldest boys up from school, drive them to soccer practice, and then immediately after to football and then, whilst they changed frantically in the car, to hockey practice. At 9 and 10 years old, these practices were legit and no player was able to skip a practice or they would be benched. That word strikes fear in kids who take competition seriously.

We did guitar lessons, ballet, dance, football, hockey, wrestling, volleyball, softball, basketball, choir and everything in between. We raked in hundreds of volunteer hours at our schools. I went to every birthday party, play date, party and school function, with mulitple toddlers and always an infant in tow. We chaperoned every field trip, every school dance, and never sent our kids to an away game without our presence. We coach little league soccer and football and were on as many planning committees as humanly possible. No, was not a word we ever used.

Those days, my kids would come home and barely be able to keep their heads up at the dinner table. It would be 7:00 or 8:00 pm, sometimes later, by the time we sat down as a family, famished and exhausted. I remember cooking whilst nursing, eating while standing and rocking an overtired, overstimulated baby … but never once did I think all this was too much. I mean, anything for your precious children, right? Exhaustion for everyone meant I was doing something right.

There were no red flags. The kids were  thriving. They loved the competitions, the trips to sing in Aspen, the recitals, friends, invitations … everything, For all extensive purposes, they loved life.

I loved watching them learn skills, tools that would take them farther than the simple classes. I loved hearing they made the A squad or were starters for the next game. The excitement, the smiles, the nervous giggles before dance. It was fun … I felt like I was supermom, leaving no rock unturned in the quest to keep them stimulated, busy and in search of their passions.

But, I need only look at my stress level, my blood pressure, my temperament to fully comprehend the downside of our after-school commitments. School was hard enough for my kids … sitting still for 7 hours a day, listening, learning, behaving.  At one of their schools, they even had quiet lunch with only a 15 minute recess after. They were already in a state that no matter how much fun these additional structured activities were, it was too much. There was no free time for me, no free time for them, and this affected all our behavior, our mood and our achievements.

We were all spread so thin that we had nothing left for each other. I rarely had anything planned for dinner. I had to sit in rush hour traffic with babies and infants who despised their car seats. And, God forbid we misplaced a cleat, or a jersey wasn’t moved from the washing machine to the dryer, stress came crashing down on all of us.

I remember clearly when we decided to homeschool and cut back on the crazy schedule.  The kids were dropping hints like mad. They wanted to kayak after school, and not run all over like chickens with their heads cut of. When we finally listened to them, there was a major sigh of relief amonst the people in our household.

There was also a quiet gasp amongst our friends and family. But, then we took it a step further. We decided to break out of society all together.  We bought an RV and lived in it, almost exclusively fo 7 years, traveling the continent in search of adventure.

Say No To Structured Activities
A nice staged photo of a very calm content family … LOL

We traveled, kayaked, hiked, climbed, camped, snowboarded, dirtbiked … we did everything and then some … as a family.  It is here, in our modest authentic life, that we truly thrived. Our kids blossomed. As they explored and discovered, experienced highs and lows,  they became closer and closer and closer. They evolved into themselves, they learned who they truly were, what they truly were interested in and how they truly wanted to live. Education became individualized.  The younger kids, never having stepped inside a classroom have a worldview eons away from society.

As amazing as it sounds, however, this move was not widely accepted by … the world.  You see, if  you live in this world, but not of it, if your values aren’t identical to your peers, the conclusion is that there is something wrong with you, not society.  Never society.  I understand to an extent. At the time, we were so radical. So radical that the freakin Today Show came out and did a story on us. So radical that Nickelodeon followed us around for 1 week and made a 30 minute special about us. So bizarrely radical, that producers were coming out of the woodwork with show pitches. We were so radically different that we actually had an offer from Lifetime TV to do a show. In the end, (thank God) they wouldn’t give us creative control (to axe something we disliked from airing) and, so, we walked. Preserving our family and protecting our children is our motivation in everything we do, which is precisely why we said NO to structured activities for our kids.

Despite the negativity we received from friends and family, and about 40% of the country … eventually something happened. Something magical. Friends, family and even strangers saw our kids truly thriving. Thriving outside the auspices of trumped up stress, of over-scheduling, of formal learning.  In place of all the head shaking and disappointment, we started to hear from people wanting to do the very thing they had heckled so hard the year before. We still receive, on average, 5-6 emails DAILY asking how we were able to get started.  People want out of their hectic, stress-filled lives, and they see a shimmer of light.

I don’t know when the pedulum swung so far in our society. When did American parents begin to feel the need to fill their kids’ lives with excitement every second of every day? I’m of the generation where our moms gossiped with friends on their decks drinking Tab and smoking a cigarette. We walked one mile to and from school, rode our bikes everywhere and weren’t accounted for until dinner. We made forts, played in sprinklers and climbed trees.

There was no stress, no anxiousness. My mom had dinner on the table every night and my dad had a scotch the minute he walked in the door from work.  His contribution to outside sports was waking up to drive us to swim practice.  When the commitment became waking at 4:00 to go dive into a freezing cold outdoor pool, I quit. My brother persevered. My dad left it up to him to wake him up, because no way was he going to fight a kid to get up at 4 am.  Zero pressure. Zero parental self worth garnered from a child’s performace. My parent’s rightly knew, if my brother wanted it, he would put forth the effort, my dad would merely wake long enough to drive the 20 miutes to the facility.

At soccer practice, I was only interested in making sleep over plans for the upcoming weekend. Softball practice was more about Big League Chew than anything else. I remember the snack bar being next level, but I couldn’t tell you anything else about those two seasons as a Blue Bonnie.  Being benched was never a concern … my competitive gene didn’t flourish until I was much older.

Today, this kind of non-commital participation  is unfathomable. Showing up just for fun isn’t an option. Parents push, coaches push, schools push. You must be the best, do the best, win, win, win. Long gone are the days of missing practice because it snowed and you want to go sledding with your siblings. I remember bribing one of our older sons to miss his basketball practice because it had dumped snow and we were enjoying a powder day with our family. He was so stressed because he knew, at 12 that would mean he didn’t play.

The result is a much less well rounded kid because they have to commit to things at much younger ages. Parents are forced to weigh these commitments against the well being of the rest of the family. Not to mention, these sports are not cheap. $300 for mini mite hockey? $75 for 8&U basketball? And then the gear, the gas, the mandatory volunteer hours, the required fundraising … and forget any of this if you have more than couple kids. We’d have to start lobbying Congress for 10 year olds to get “special permit” licenses.

Every once in a while, we notice a special talent in one of our kids. We ask ourselves if it would be worth it to give them a shot.  But then the words of one of our kids echoes in our ears, “Right. But, do you want to focus on just one thing and be really great at it, or do you want to have fun and do lots of things and be really good at all of them.”

This from a kid who was changing in the car between practices. This from the kid who has lived both lives. These words are wise and so they  bring us back to that decision we made 7.5 years ago and we relax.  We did good. Our kids have a zest for life and new things. They enjoy a wide variety of sports that they can all do together. They have tons of friends who dirt bike, tons more who snowboard, a bunch who kayak, many who climb, and a handful who love to travel. But, most importantly, they have each other and the knowledge and understanding that it is relationships with the people we love that is most important. For us and our goals as parents … this is success.

I would love to say we evaluated our lives and our goals and decided on RV’ing as a means to achieve said goals, but we were reactionary, we were playing defense, not offense. We were hanging on to the last vestiges of the old adage “keeping up with the Joneses”.  If our kids’ friends were playing, then our kids were playing. Nothing was going to stop us, not lack of funds, not lack of time, in fact, I was hell bent of ensuring that my 12 kids would not ever miss out on doing anything or having anything because they were born into a large family.

Today, I thank God that that was not how their lives panned out. That plan was neither feasible nor wise on my part. If we had kept up with that charade, we’d have very diffferent children than the ones we have now, who are independent and thoughtful, humble and kind and exceptionally generous. I’m not sure how you get there when the world seemingly revolves around your every whim. Not to go off on a tangent here, but I have been known to actually give thanks for lack of funds specifically because I would have spoiled my kids and they would not be who they are today.

Today’s buzzwords from kids are stress and anxiety. I don’t remember either of these as a child and I’ll tell you what, I’m not that old.  Kids in the 70’s and 80’s didn’t have therapists on speed dial. I knew no-one whose parents were divorced. Most of our mom’s stayed home and had very open lines of communication. Ritalin and Aderal … not a thing. Kids never were inside, ever. We weren’t privvy to adult themed conversations, issues or concerns. We just played, and played, and played. We got bored, but knew never to say that word out loud. We learned to push past that boredom and find new creative, fun ways to spend our time.

Kids need more unstructured play and more play from outside their parents or an adults watchful eye. They need to get bored. They need to grow and interact and discover and push themselves. They need to experience banged up knees and callouses. They need some peer pressure and some tears. Kids should be relatively fearless and unwise, that’s the nature of childhood. They should be naiive and unaware. And they should be hysterically devoid of self preservation. I mean, if you aren’t in constant wonder and awe of your kids’ ability to destroy their bodies, something isn’t right.

But, in the day and age when future NFL’ers must start playing at age 3 and the mindset that kids won’t get that college scholarship if  they aren’t groomed from the time they can walk, it’s hard to let go, it’s hard to pull away from the insanity of scheduling our kids to death. I know.  I know the what if’s can be pretty brutal. But, I also have the benefit of knowing that the what-if’s are equally brutal on the other side of childhood.

In the end you have to own your choices.  We chose to pursue activities that benefitted our entire family. Hence, no NBA or PGA for us. Instead, we chose to invest our time and money on our family as a whole by doing sports and activities that we can all participate in together. There are up sides and downsides to these choices, for sure.  But, I’m pretty happy with how it’s all turning out.  I love that our choices have been made with one goal in mind … family. I particularly love that we don’t run around like chickens with our heads cut off, that I’m home to fix healthy meals and that our kids are home to eat them. I love that McDonald’s is not a household name.

The downsides? Meh, we don’t look back. I guess we always have the XGames…lol.

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Read more:

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  • Your family is fantastic. I am struggling with the scheduling and I feel like you just gave me permission to let go of some of the crazy. Thank you.

  • I love you! I just found you through looking up homeschooling during Lent… One of my goals for my kids is long stretches of free time, boredom and overcoming boredom. I want them to love being outside and dirty, comfortable with themselves. I want my 3 kids to be the best of friends. Above all to know that they must turn to God and Mary is their perfect mother.

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