My 7-year-old son climbed into the car with a scowl on his face and mumbled sullen responses to my cheerful inquiries. Caleb seemed to be doing well in school and had plenty of friends. Yet, his carefree laughter and sweet demeanor had changed. What I didn't understand was that my son was responding to the pressures of an overscheduled life. He had zero down time and lacked the opportunity for unscheduled creative play. Caleb needed a better balance of activities in our family routine.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents provide plenty of time for child-driven free play. This allows kids to develop creativity, imagination and confidence. During unstructured playtime, kids practice decision-making skills and explore areas of intrigue at their own pace.
I can remember Caleb and his siblings digging for hours after I commented that dinosaur bones might be buried in our backyard. However, as he got older, school, extracurricular activities and even other family members’ commitments — specifically mine — absorbed most of his time. Caleb no longer decided for himself what he would do from one moment to the next, and his attitude reflected his lack of control. My husband and I needed to help carve out time for him to imagine, create and play.
Keep and toss
I began by sitting down with paper and pencil to work through what our week looked like from Caleb’s perspective. What I found was that he hardly had time to choke down a snack and transition into his soccer clothes, let alone have a thought of his own.
The bigger realization came as I looked at our entire family schedule. It wasn’t primarily Caleb’s activities that filled his day, but my activities kept him constantly on the go. Caleb needed school, time with friends and a healthy amount of extracurricular activity. He didn’t need to spend hours at church while I volunteered. I had to remember that my commitments became my family's commitments.
So my husband and I had to evaluate which activities in our family schedule truly brought joy and value to my son and our family. When asked what activities mattered most to him, Caleb’s answer was surprisingly simple: family time and time to play.
With those priorities in mind, I discovered a number of items on my schedule that had to go:
- My evening exercise routine robbed my family of the time we could be together. I had to figure out how to stay healthy while clearing the evenings.
- Being part of the leadership committee at a local mother's group took up time, as I attended meetings, sent birthday emails, put together goody bags and made treats.
- Manning the check-in for children’s ministries at our church, cooking and baking for various events and stamping envelopes for a local charity were fairly minor time commitments, but added together they ate away our family margin.
Friends of ours have had the opposite issue. It wasn’t their own schedule, but their young children’s clubs, sports, music and art classes that didn’t allow any breathing room for their kids. Their answer to finding margin was to pare down to one activity outside of school per child. Although the children liked each activity they took part in, these parents found that their children gave a collective sigh of relief at being able to have more time at home. Choosing one activity wasn’t the battle they had imagined.
Find the margin
My son's negative behavior and frustrations were simply symptoms of a larger problem. We had no margin in our family life, and I realized the issue started with me. I stay home with the children, yet I woke to a last-minute alarm, often missed my devotional time with God, hurriedly consumed breakfast and frequently started a busy day behind schedule. Then I'd stay up until midnight to finish tasks. Activities, obligations, friendships, Bible study groups and church commitments filled every spare hour of my day.
I used to chuckle at my friends who hurried home from activities so their children could enjoy a little down time before heading to bed. Now, I began to understand. They were allowing for margin — time beyond what was actually required. Responsibilities from sunrise to sunset simply left no room for relaxed, unstructured time.
Here is how I began to create this margin for my family:
Rest in my role: Sometimes in my desire to be a go-to volunteer for the church, I took on too much outside the home — tying up my children’s time as well. I had to let go of some vague spiritual guilt for not doing it all, and learn to rest in my role as a mom to four young, active children.
One extra activity: I determined that one extra activity was all I could fit into a day, even if the time block on my calendar seemed open. This open calendar space freed up the afternoons and gave my son the down time he needed.
Down days: We decided as a family that we needed at least one day a week with nothing planned outside of school. Sometimes those were weekend days, but we chose not to have activities every single day of the week.
Are there exceptions to these rules? Absolutely. But following the spirit of the rule allowed me to make wise decisions about my family’s time.
Let kids choose
Personally I like having options in my day. But I failed to recognize that Caleb had none. From home to school and back, each and every decision about his day was made for him. So I had to train my son to start making some of his own decisions as we moved into a family plan that included margin. Here is what I did:
- Scheduled playtime: I gave Caleb at least an hour for nontechnology-related play each day. He was free to do as he chose. During this time, he developed a new interest in paper folding and began making paper airplanes of his own design.
- Weekly menu: For snacks, he was able to choose one from the bin, such as granola bars and crackers, or from the refrigerator, such as cheese or yogurt. He was always allowed fruit or vegetable snacks. Then I provided several options and allowed my son to choose one dinner each week.
- Clothes: Caleb's school had uniforms, so that choice wasn't available to him. However, on weekends and evenings he chose his outfits, though occasional adjustments had to be made.
- Schedules: Caleb appreciated knowing what the week would look like. Being allowed to voice his desire for playtime and family time, and then to see us respond to that need, helped him feel empowered and important.
With a few changes to our schedule, Caleb’s grumpy demeanor became less frequent. The sweet personality we knew slowly began to resurface. Sometimes getting his smile back was as simple as allowing him to choose his own breakfast and making sure he had time to finish it. Although not being overscheduled requires ongoing decision making related to what family members want to and should do, I find that when we find the right balance, Caleb and the rest of our family live happier lives.