In our in-depth observational analysis of U.S. Christian households, a primary challenge for some families was the fast pace of life. For these families the problem was self-induced through the over-scheduling of their children’s activities. One mother commented that the biggest challenge to her marriage was how “the kids and their activities have somehow made it to the top of our priority list.” Life seems out of control for these parents as family life revolves around coordinating their kid’s activities. Family dinners, time with the spouse, and household chores took a back seat to the kid’s gymnastics, soccer, baseball, dance and other experiences orchestrated out of a sense of parental responsibility. These were “child-centric” homes where one or both parents acted as if it was their role to facilitate rather than regulate their kid’s activities. The parents were unhappy with their out-of-control schedules, but also felt that eliminating activities would be unfair and hurt the kids.
Historical Context: A History of Playtime
In the book, Children at Play: An American History, Brown University historian Howard Chudacoff gives insight into the practices and context of children’s play from Colonial time to the present era. Chudacoff’s book provides a historical context of children’s play that yields insight into historical factors that encourage the over-scheduling of the modern family.
Prior to the American Industrial Revolution the primary goal of parenting was preventing idleness. Any time children spent playing was considered stolen time, as both children and adults were expected to contribute to the family economy, where home and work were integrated. In such a largely agrarian society, families were often quite large and far away from their neighbors. A child’s playmates were therefore most often siblings, and they played games that were incorporated into the work itself, with unstructured time away from adults to roam the woods and simply “hang around.” The role of parenting in this era was to discourage unproductive endeavors (“devil’s play”) and distraction from duty.
As the family economy lessoned with the Industrial Revolution, the world of work and home became separated, reducing the family responsibilities of children. For the first time in America children had time for creative and unstructured play. Toys were mostly appropriated from common household objects. During this time period, children, not their parents, assumed responsibility for their entertainment and use of free time. In the rural areas the most common areas of play were the woods and fields that surrounded the local community. With the mass movement of country folks to the city, however, children commandeered city streets and public areas for their play. City streets were dangerous and children were often under foot—a constant nuisance to adults and proprietors. The primary goal of parenting during this era was to isolate children from the physical dangers and immoral influences of city life. Organizations like the Boy Scouts and YMCA were created at the advice of experts that believed that children, especially boys, required adult-supervised activities to prevent them from “loafing” and getting into mischief. The “child-centered” society emerged as parents looked to the advice of experts that believed children’s free time should be supervised by adults in activities that reinforce productive life skills or moral and spiritual values.
Over the past 60 years the primary parenting goal shifted to providing for children’s success and physical safety. Play has moved indoors as public spaces have become hostile to unsupervised play and as parents have discouraged their kids from roaming neighborhoods. Vacant lots, fields and woods are either no longer available, or parents perceive them as dangerous — so parents seek to keep their children occupied with organized activities and formal play sites. In past eras children filled their idle time with creative and unstructured play. Today’s parents assume responsibility to fill their kid’s idle time through music lessons, organized sports, video games, boy scouts, gymnastics, the internet, television, smart phones and modern electronic toys. By moving play indoors into a parent-controlled environment the parents, not the children, became responsible for filling the child’s idle time with opportunities for entertainment and amusement.
After a century of effort, social forces have been successful in their push for parents to “get their kids off the street.” It is ironic that social forces are now critical of the “child-centered” parents that have achieved this goal, as their kids experience the consequences of over-scheduling and isolated, sedentary, media-based, and less creative pastimes. Never in the history of America has society held parents responsible for filling their children’s idle time. It is important for those seeking to help or encourage parents (mom in particular) to understand these additional expectations and standards within their historical context.
Psycho-Social Context: Incentives for Staying Too Busy
Most of the mothers in our study specifically and repeatedly stated that they were too busy and want less to do. Yet in most cases, they had a significant amount of control over how busy they were, because they were the de facto gatekeepers of family activities (whether they actively played that role or not). As we evaluated the latent content of our journals and interviews, as well as general cultural trends, we identified three incentives for busyness in moms: cultural expectation, personal satisfaction, and avoiding risk. In the end, moms have more control of their level of busy-ness than they may realize, but there are definite trade-offs that come along with intentionally decreasing their activity level.
First, moms are culturally rewarded for being busy, or at least for appearing busy. Facebook provides great examples of this, as moms regularly post how much they have to do…and their friends leave encouraging comments in return. On the other hand, you will find very few mom-posts along the lines of “slept late, watched TV, no chores today.” Even if this were true, most moms would feel awkward putting it out there for the world to see. Women who may actually have little to do are less likely to discuss it with their friends than those who are always swamped. As a result, moms have developed a socially reinforced expectation that they are supposed to be busy. They then adapt to this expectation and are emotionally rewarded by their peers. (We also considered that our moms over-reported how busy they were in order to conform to this expectation.)
Closely related to this cultural expectation is the personal satisfaction that moms legitimately derive from accomplishments. Whether they admit it our not (and they often do), the moms in our study were proud of themselves at the end of a long hard day. And they should be. Unfortunately, at the end of a relaxing day, mom may not feel the same sense of satisfaction for having taken some time out to rest — in fact, she may feel some guilt for this, as undoubtedly there is some cleaning or cooking or administrative tasks left undone (hint: there always are). Moms learn over time that when they stay very busy they don’t have to question themselves at the end of the day about whether they got enough done. But if they had a lot of free time, they start to question whether they are being selfish or lazy and miss that sense of accomplishment from a couple days ago when they were overworked. Moms should be proud of all they accomplish during a busy, complicated day — but they should also be proud of getting some rest… perhaps once in a while plunking their kids down in front of the TV, handing hubby the phone (or a cookbook) to get dinner, and taking a bath behind a locked door.
Finally, moms stay busy because they know how they want things done (and often are the only ones who know how it should be done), and it is risky to leave such a task to someone else. The moms in our study were frequently overwhelmed with the important “minutiae” of the household. However, most moms would do well to take a look at whether a task really needs to be done a certain way, or if they could delegate that task to another family member, even if the quality might suffer. Avoiding risk therefore drives a certain amount of daily activity for moms.
Overall, moms have the power (and authority) to be less busy. However, by doing less they will be violating cultural expectations, possibly experiencing less personal satisfaction, and even taking on additional risk. (But they also might get eight hours of sleep every once in a while.) Moms need to understand their choices, as well as the potential consequences. They still might make all the same decisions, but at least they would be in greater control of their obligations.
Focus on the Family conducted an in-depth observational study of twelve US households. Participants were asked to provide a 30-day journal, home videos, and other written assignments that described their household’s daily activities. In addition, telephone interviews were conducted with each household, and researches conducted a week-long site visit to some of the households. The primary areas of investigation were media use, interaction patterns, and overcoming challenges.