childhood family

Save the Childhoods!

10:53 AMHeather

When asked about how I might pray for her, she replied that she needed wisdom for stress management and time management with all of her commitments.

She was 10.

He got in the car, fighting an angst, as he declared that he was so overwhelmed with the decision of what he wanted to do with his life. 

He was 11.

Their resumes, this generation, of young people seeking college educations -- it's more than I would have hoped to accomplish in twice their years.

Word of warning. I'm about to step into my crotchety middle-aged Myrtle voice.

There's something I've been wanting to say for quite awhile. I've wrestled back and forth with it because of one thing.

I am not wanting to shame any parent or any kid or any family out there. I am not wanting to add to the ever-mounting public opinion and cultural pressure that parents and kids face these days. My heart motivation is not to judge or criticize or place blame. I throw no shade at anyone.

I just want to be a small voice that maybe sounds an alarm bell to some things we might want to consider. 

This year, as we are preparing to launch our first born child, I have found myself more reflective -- even more than my analytical, social worker-self usually is.

And I keep revisiting a conversation with my sister, way back, when my oldest was still in preschool and I was pregnant with our youngest. Her children are stair-stepped with mine, which has been a glorious source of wisdom, direction, and hand-me-down clothing throughout the years. 

We were chatting about our kids and life, when she began talking about what she was observing from her community. 

"Heather, it's different than when we were kids. I mean, there's so much pressure to put your kids in everything and push them and be high achieving. And it just makes me wonder if we might sacrifice some element of childhood when we don't let our kids be carefree like you and I were as kids? Remember how we'd play in the summer, running around the cul-de-sac until 10 pm?"

It was a voice of reason that resounded within me, at the exact right timing. Our oldest was all about baseball, and we had just put him in a T-ball league at age 3. Our next one was discussing a go at soccer, while I endured an uncomfortable third pregnancy.   

So, my big sister and I made a pact. We decided right then and there that we would hold each other accountable and be watchful for each other if we saw signs that we were "hyper-parenting" and becoming so busy or pushing our kids so much that undue stress was becoming a warning bell.

At that time, my husband and I had a long chat about goals for our family and our family life, and what was important to us. We sought out the counsel of older parents, asking them what they felt they did well or what they would do differently. We asked my younger cousins, who were just becoming young adults, what their perspectives were on their childhoods as they were entering adulthood.

We set a rule at that time that while we maintained complete control as parents of little ones, we would have one child at a time in one activity at a time. As they aged and progressed, we would revise this stance accordingly. But we wanted to be able to sit for family dinners as long as possible. We wanted to have evenings and weekends to play or sleep or rest or hang out.

Listen, we are far from perfect parents. We have messed this thing up far more times than we've gotten it right. In fact, just last week, I told a younger mom my biggest parenting secret. 

It's all trial and error!  

I think she was expecting more, given how I'd framed the forthcoming information. But I told her that the best thing I ever learned from parenting books was to chuck the parenting books if they were making me feel more defeated than encouraged. Because every child is different, and every age and stage brings changes, and God alone is the instruction manual for each kid. 

(So, there you have it, my three offspring. My big fat truth about parenting you that you can feel free to tell your therapist from the get-go. Your parents tackled this monumental task with the mentality that it was all trial and error).

One thing my husband and I did that we have absolutely no regrets about is we set out to guard against "hyper-parenting" or being so busy as a family that the entire ship was sinking. We agreed that if we had a child particularly gifted or motivated for a sport or activity, then we would have to rethink our strategy. After all, we spent our early married years watching his little sister become an elite college swimmer, receiving a full-scholarship for her skills. His other sister has been and still is a very gifted volleyball player, now playing for her university.

A recent dinner conversation with our children confirmed our earlier resolve. And thus, I find myself risking stepping on toes here. 

I asked my three children (now ages 18, 16 and 12) what they wish we had done differently when they were younger. We asked if they wish we had pushed them more to do elite or competitive sports or to be more involved in various things, or any other thing they wish we had done differently.

"No regrets on the sports thing," was the resounding response. Two of the three have enjoyed dabbling in various sports as a hobby, being part of a team and exploring their interests. The other has enjoyed dabbling in creative pursuits, and when it became quite stressful, he slowed it down. No regrets.

Here's what they did say. They wish we had played more as a family. Maybe more camping trips? (These stopped after a particularly rough outing where food poisoning, a storm, and a sprained wrist became a horrid trifecta of doom). More family game nights? More opportunity to go visit somewhere that they could roam and explore? Absolute gratitude for our trips to Moose Lake in Canada, where the kids have free reign of the camp grounds all the live-long day. Horseback riding, lake activities, late night bonfires.

As our oldest prepares to venture out, what he treasures most and remembers most are the carefree experiences of childhood. He wisely and of his own volition chose to not push himself to complete a ton of AP courses in high school. When he was 14, he made that decision. He knows himself well and determined that he would rather enter college with a better GPA and not feel burned out than to push himself too hard before he even got to college.

Basically, my children are smarter than I am.

Yep. No doubt about that.

I have to admit that his decision nagged at me as he completed his college application. I let comparison and culture defeat me, wondering how his list of activities (not long) would stack up to his peers. In my insecurity I advised him, "You might want to say that your parents encouraged you to focus on few things in order to give them your all."

He confidently replied, "No, Mom. I'm good."

And he is. The kid's college will be greatly supplemented by a lovely academic scholarship for his college entrance test scores.

Here's what I'm seeing in my house these days. Here's what is motivating me to share my thoughts with you. 

The days are long, but the years fly by. Our kids get to be kids for 18 years. At best. They have the rest of their lives to be overworked, over-busy, over-stressed, over-tired. Or not. They have the rest of their lives to be responsible adults, pushing themselves to bigger achievements and huge goals.

I'm not saying we raise a generation of snowflakes or lazy kids.

What I am saying is can we just stop and take a deep breath?

Can we leave enough margins in life for spontaneity? And show our children how to restore and refresh and make memories in between showing them how to achieve?

Can we collectively stop and consider the rise in anxiety and depression in young kids and teens? According to an article in Time magazine, there has been a 37% increase in depression in teens between 2004 and 2015.

Can we stop and look at how our kids are faring with his mentality of more, more, and more at younger and younger ages? Of how comparison is out of hand and our idea of healthy competition has perhaps gotten blown out of proportion? What about recess and the arts and music being emphasized?

When my best friend has to cover the ears of her ten-year-old because of the language and volume of the parents of the opposing soccer team, we might have a problem. It's a city rec league, man. These aren't the Olympics. I see no college scout around for your preteen.

Let's let kids be kids. 

Let's save the childhoods.

Let's watch our kids closely and have open conversations with them when we see a spike in anxiety or suspect stress is hitting them and maybe changes are warranted.
Invite some kids over and throw a sprinkler in the yard and buy a cake. That's called a birthday party pre-Pinterest. (If you know me, you know I'm a creative sort who can let Pinterest rule me. I'm preaching to myself here to talk myself OFF the Pinterest ledge and just host without formality or perfection).

 Let's invite each other over, in our sweatpants or pajamas. Whatever. Let's live in the real and the now and let our kids run across the street to ring the neighbor's doorbell to play.

Image courtesy of Unsplash
Let's find ways to let our kids just roam. And be bored enough to create or invent some game or entertainment. Let's give our kids margins to be kids. Let's remind ourselves that a blank in the calendar does not mean it has to be filled. Let's not push our kids at age 12 to decide their future career.

Really. Can we do that? Can we spark their imagination about all the possibilities and let them explore without making them think it's abnormal at age 12 to not have their entire lives plotted out? Can we relax a bit about choosing high school curriculum for 8th grade, and choosing their high school educational track now because they need to know their college major and career?

They haven't even all hit puberty. Their voices haven't even changed.

I've told all three of my kids at that pivot point in middle school, "I'm in my 40's. I still have no idea what to be when I grow up. No worries. Choose what sounds interesting. You can always change course, as you likely will a million times anyway."

My kids all know that I still expect them to work to their potential and to have a job when they are old enough and to be responsible and contributing members of society.

But, can we make a pact for the good of our children? 

Let's stop stressing our kids out. Please. Let's find a healthier balance between play and work and activities and rest. 

Let's save the childhoods. 

I'm all for setting the bar to success high. But I think we might consider if we are beating our children with it like a stick.

I for sure don't have this all figured out. I'm the worlds okayest mom. And by golly, this parenting thing is hard enough, so as I said, I am not trying to shame or add burdens to anyone.

But I can tell you this. As I sort through old photos and videos for the 321 things that require them for my kid's senior year, the ones that matter most are the photos that capture the joy of carefree childhood and moments spent together.

I only regret not making more of THOSE memories.

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