It's All Starting Up Again: Brace Yourself for the Fall
Many of us are not overly enthusiastic about returning to the pace of life that fall brings.
We've reached the summer's end. I have mixed feelings about this.
The end of August is an evocative time, conjuring up memories of fleeting, lazy afternoons, last ice cream cones savored, final fireflies caught.
There's a hint of melancholy in the air (and more than a hint of it in the silence that follows my daily response to my 11-year-old son's daily question of whether he REALLY has to go back to school). The glorious sense of freedom and possibilities—however essentially illusory—that felt so palpable in June has been replaced by an overwhelming sense of the passage of time. August is the swiftest month.
Except it's not. With all the kids at home, with too little structure and too few friends around, it is, somehow, also the longest month.
Suddenly your children are driving you nuts. I commented to a friend that late August reminds me of the final weeks of pregnancy: You're not really looking forward to what comes next, but your daily existence is so uncomfortable that finally your whole being just says: "Enough already! Bring it on!"
She laughed and agreed, "Yes, and what follows is the also same. Exhaustion!"
The expression du jour in Chevy Chase is "BEFORE IT ALL STARTS UP AGAIN." As in, "I just want to enjoy these last few days BEFORE IT ALL STARTS UP AGAIN," or, "We thought we'd go for a family picnic BEFORE IT ALL STARTS UP AGAIN," or, "The kids just want to ride their bikes/go to the pool/read all afternoon BEFORE IT ALL STARTS UP AGAIN."
In general, no one is referring to school starting up again. Most of us are happy to get the kids out from underfoot, back into the classroom, back to learning. What no one seems to be looking forward to is the activities, or at least, the activities' schedule.
These last few weeks of August are a time of planning and preparing for the onslaught of September. Back-to-School Nights, Sneak Peaks, and myriad Back-to-School events are already inked onto the calendar.
It's time to start choosing which events matter, which ones don't, which ones you like and plan to attend, and which ones you can skip. Every member of the family will have a different opinion on this, which can really put the pizzazz back in a family dinner. Be sure you win this debate—this is not the time to show mercy.
(It is also time to start perfecting your ability to avoid making eye contact with PTA officials looking for volunteers. You will need this skill in the coming weeks. Unless, of course, you've never volunteered for anything. Then start practicing saying "YES!" to relieve the rest of us.)
And finally, it's time to put together the tri-annual Rubik's Cube of modern parenting: Fitting together all the children's activities along with the logistics of getting them to said activities.
And that's what made the recent New York Times' article, "Family Happiness and the Overbooked Child," so timely. It was not exactly a newsflash to read that booking children into a constant round of activities can deplete family resources and parental sanity, but it was a good reminder.
The article quotes such experts as Wendy Mogel—author of "The Blessings of a B Minus" and scourge of over-involved, over-scheduling parents everywhere—going even further, asserting that all these enriching activities for the children—the tennis, horseback riding, music and art lessons, as well as the intensive sports teams—do not guarantee success or happiness later in life, and that, in fact, they undermine family well-being in the present.
In general, parents know this. But in communities like ours, parents can get caught in more of a bind than the article admits.
It is easy to caricature today's moms and dads as Svengalis in minivans, plotting to create the perfect, well-rounded child, or the perfect child-with-a-passion.
But parents have a variety of motives for enrolling their children in enrichment activities: Sometimes we just want them to get some exercise and have fun. Sometimes we want them to be able to play tennis, or a musical instrument, in part because we think that having those skills will bring them pleasure now, as well as later in life, and in part because we want them to be relatively accomplished (both for their own self-esteem and, whether or not we can admit it, ours).
Sometimes we sign them up for competitive soccer/baseball/lacrosse because they show some skill at it, they love it, and maybe we hope it will help them to make their high school team. These are perfectly fine goals. Whether or not they are achieved may not even matter—there are good lessons to be learned and experiences to be had along the way.
The problem lies in the intensity with which these activities are pursued for children at younger and younger ages.
Take, for example, the school play. Most parents sign their child up, not because of dreams of future Broadway glory, but simply because their child wants to be in it. The end result is a cute, thirty- to forty-minute production.
But the curtain rises only after weeks of increasingly stern emails detailing the COMMITMENT required of all cast members, and the two consecutive, mandatory all-day weekend dress rehearsals (and this is for children in the chorus.)
And you may think you're not overextending by keeping your child on a recreational league sports team, which may only have one practice and one game a week. But the games are often at far-flung fields or gymnasiums, and you will soon be getting emails about additional skills clinics and camps and off-season play.
The school play must go on, of course, and the coach is just trying to help the kids. But it's easy for families to find themselves much busier than they intended.
Signing a child up for one or two activities isn't a big deal. But multiply two activities across siblings, and suddenly dinner is late, the kids are fried, and the apparition of Wendy Mogel is appearing before you, shaking her head and pursing her lips. And you know in your heart that she's right.
Maybe the answer is simply to really, really scale back. Or, maybe the answer is to push for more reasonable hours required for team participation, or for the school play. I don't really know. Like most parents, I've tried different approaches over the years, and have had varying degrees of success in achieving balance, ranging from reasonable sanity to epic failure.
Most of us fall into this struggle because we ourselves enjoy being busy, and we want our kids to have rich, full lives.
And yes, worrying about overscheduling is not exactly a terrible problem to have. But it is clearly a challenge for many of us, and finding the answers for it is not as easy as it seems it should be.
But it's important to keep trying, so that when September rolls around every year, the things that are supposed to be fun can seem less frenetic, and the moments of warm and connected family time can seem less elusive.