As a working parent living in our larger community, how much free time do you have? If you are raising children, how often do you eat at least one meal a day as a family? How frequently do you and your kids just hang out for family time?
If you are like a growing number of parents across the country, you are stretched to the max. To live in a nice North Shore community, you are probably working a lot of overtime or at least two jobs to make ends meet. I don't mean to merely pay the bills, but more importantly to pay for the second or third family car, the seasonal family vacation, membership in the gym or possibly the local country club. Somehow we have been brainwashed into believing that more is better, especially as it relates to our children.
In the early eighties, parents became obsessed over juvenile delinquency. Many counselors suggested that the more structure there is in a teenager's life, the less likely he or she is to be vulnerable to making poor choices. So, many parents bombard their kids with extracurricular activities. Sports, after school clubs, music lessons, horseback riding and karate will potentially have a positive influence on one's growth and development. At the bare minimum, it keeps everyone busy and running.
However, the question raised is, what is the long-term effect on the family and family relationships? When one's social commitments become more important than the people in one's life, problems emerge that could be lethal.
Thus, as a parent you are often caught between a rock and a hard place in terms of what to do. If you eliminate the activities, you might be eliminating a very positive life force. If you do nothing, chaos reigns and family becomes more fragmented.
The key is to find some balance in all of this. To find balance as parents, we need to reorder our priorities. Whatever priorities we establish, we must stand by them.
Many parents complain of multi tasking and work-aholism. They feel economically and emotionally exhausted. In many ways, we are stuck in over consumption. Do we really need all the "toys" and extras things we have?
We need to refocus. Our families need to come first, no matter what the cost and adjustments. More effort and energy need to be invested in finding time each day to talk and "listen" to our kids about their day and about their lives.
As we struggle to refocus and in some cases reclaim our families, we should not eliminate extra curricular activities such as sports and after school clubs. However, we need to dictate to them how they will fit into the equation of our lives.
Some school related activities and sports have gotten out of hand. Family life should not be shaped and determined around football practices. Parents need a life, and so do kids. Neither group needs to be stressed out by these activities because they make excessive demands on one's time and energy.
Sports are excellent venues for building character, self-discipline and positive self-esteem. They can also reinforce positive human values. However, when they exert so much control over a teenager's life that he or she literally has no life, there is something wrong.
Commitment to practice and the "team effort" is essential. Practicing long hours every day borders on excessive. Asking a teenager to give up his or her vacation time for non-essential sports practices or tournaments is possibly too demanding. Prohibiting other sports activities on the teenager's free time is a bit too controlling.
Parents should not shape family time around football practices. Ideally, we want to be in concert with one another and cooperate. Unfortunately, some entities outside the family are really out of control and are determining what configuration family life should take.
PJ was a senior in high school. He was the oldest of five kids. His parents are both hard workers with good jobs. They are burning the candle at both ends to give their children everything. However, PJ's mother feels that their family life is suffering greatly. She further expressed that she was being held hostage by after school activities and school sports.
As a co-captain of his high school varsity football team, PJ had added responsibilities that took what little free time he had away. He was literally running 24 - 7. He loved his team and the game, but really had no other life.
His family complained that all family activities had to be scheduled around football. PJ rarely ate a meal with his family. As the season progressed, the tension at home increased. The stress in PJ's life also increased. He was not happy with this arrangement.
A number of his teammates felt the same way. With the encouragement of his teammates, he asked to meet with his head coach. He laid out his concerns and his frustrations. He asked if there were any way adjustments could be made that might ease some of the stress that he and some of his teammates were feeling.
His coach listened intently. He asked PJ some basic questions. PJ responded. In a very respectful tone, the coach said, in simple terms, this is the package, like it or not. PJ thanked the coach for his time and left.
He was fuming. He couldn't believe that there was no flexibility at all coming from the coach. PJ took the day to think about things. The next morning he went into the coach's office with all his football equipment, uniforms and a letter of resignation. In it, he expressed his gratitude for the experience he had as a co-captain and player. He noted how invaluable it was. But he cited that their conversation the day before forced him to put into perspective what was really important. In conscience, he could no longer put his family second. They needed to be his first priority.
The tragedy of this real life experience is that it did not have to play out this way. It challenges us to re-visit and review the cooperative spirit between family, school, athletics and extra curricular activities. Their principle is to build up the young person in the context of his or her family.
If that is not happening, adjustments must be made. We need to get off the fast track and find new ways to slow things down. We need to talk and listen to each other and really enjoy the gift of family life.