I've been spending a lot of time thinking about what activities we choose to participate in as a family and why. Sometimes it feels as though it is a moving target with children coming and going and getting older. We live in a society where parents and children have more choices for activities than ever before. It can sometimes be difficult to choose among them and if no conscious thought is given to this process it can result in stressed and overwhelmed parents and children. Actually, sorting through the options can be overwhelming in and of itself. There is so much stuff to choose from... much of it really good.
Since I've had more than a little practice at this, I thought I'd share how we go about making these types of decisions. The place to start is to have a goal. For us, the goal of our parenting is to raise our children to know Jesus (and we hope for them to love Him as much as we do, but that's not something we have control over.) After that, we also have the goals of raising our children to be emotionally healthy, functional, and interesting adults who have positive memories of our family. It is important to think about what your ultimate goals are. For some people, their goal for their children may be to get into an ivy league college, for others it will be to give their child the possibility of being a professional athlete, and for others it may be something else entirely. These goals will cause the parents to make choices which look very different from each other. Without goals in mind, there is no way to make decisions that will help those goals along.
But back to our decision making process... with our stated goals, having dinner together as a family is the single best way for us to accomplish that. Dinner is a time when we are together, when we enjoy each other's company, when we discuss things, when we train our children to sit and be polite, and (when we are on top of our game) have family devotions. For us, it is non-negotiable. That makes the decision easy if the activity falls over the dinner hour. We just don't do it. It doesn't even require discussion, the decision is already made. There are always exceptions (we make the rules so we can break them if we want), yet when we make those exceptions it is usually when an event is a one-time thing, not something ongoing.
What about for all those non-dinner hour activities? First we need to look at how it affects the whole family. How much driving does it involve? Is it within our budget? How much do the children involved want to do it? Does it conflict with our family values? It is a balancing act. If I drive too much, it makes me an unhappy, impatient mother. I know this and the good of the potential activity is often counter-balanced by the potential for a poorly regulated mother. I will always make sure there is one day in my week where I do not have to go anywhere. An activity on that day (whatever it happens to be that year) is off the table. For a larger family, cost is often a huge consideration. There is just not a lot of money in the budget for extra activities. Don't feel too sorry for my children, though. They have plenty of experiences and activities and I'm pretty sure that no one has been stunted because I won't pay for expensive classes and camps.
The bigger question for us is always, does it fit with our values? Is what my child is going to learn and experience in this activity in keeping what we teach at home? Who are the adults involved and do I want them speaking into my children's lives in an intense way? For older children, it may be that the experience of being exposed to different ideas is valuable. So is interacting with adults whose views may be very different from our own. We don't shelter our children, but do use wisdom in deciding when it is appropriate for them to spread their wings a bit.
There are a lot of considerations. With so many, it is not surprising that just a few activities make the cut. Fewer things to choose from makes the decision making process a bit easier. But there is still one more consideration we need to keep in mind... that of the unique needs and personalities of each of our children. What may be a great option for one (or several) of our children, may be a poor one for another child. I have certainly made the choice for one child to participate in something, yet decided that same activity is a bad match for another. Just because we have many children does not mean we use a cookie cutter approach to raising them. Seasons of life in our family are different as well. In a season where I have many surgeries and doctors' appointments, there is less time to pursue outside activities. In a season of reasonable health, there is time for more. It's how life works and teaching our children to tailor their commitments to what is happening in their life is a good life skill.
There are a couple of things which make this process a little more complicated. The first is parental guilt. We hear about other things that other people's children are doing and we panic and feel guilty that our own children are not doing those same things. We tend to underrate free time and the positive things that come along with it. The time to read, to imagine, to play, to create, to experience boredom and learn to overcome it. These are good things as well, and skills that will follow our children to adulthood. We also need to remember that we are not responsible for teaching our children every single thing in childhood. It is very short and we need to leave the door open for learning things as an adult. Just because you didn't do something as a child does not mean you cannot pursue that interest later in life.
The second hindrance is peer pressure. We parents are as guilty of peer pressure as any junior high age child. We want people to do what we are doing. It validates our decisions and makes them acceptable. It makes us good parents. It is very difficult to be the parent who bucks the trend. I know. I didn't send my oldest to preschool after all. Our area is a little preschool obsessed. When I would tell people that I wasn't sending M. to preschool the looks and reactions were a little staggering. At least I was staggered by them. You would have thought I had said, "I hope to marry my daughter off at age 16 so that she can bear 30 children by the time she's 40," instead of, "We are going to skip preschool." Really.
When other parents pressure you, it can make you second guess your decisions. Are you really doing the right thing? What if I ruin my children? What if my child is a piano prodigy and we never discover it all because of me? I wish we would just allow each other to be the best parent we are trying to be. If someone decides not to participate in an activity, it is probably because it's not right for their family at that time. It really says nothing about what another parent in choosing. Let's all be secure enough in our decisions to let others make different ones. Remember different is just different, not better or worse.
Really, just think about why you do things. Do you know where you're going? Will this help you get there? If you're happy with your level of commitment, great! If you're not, feel free to say no (or add something, it can go either way). The more a person thinks about why they are doing something, the more secure in that decision they feel and thus can allow others a similar freedom. Besides, the world would be a mighty dull place if we all did the same things all the time.