How to get the balance right with after-school activities?

We have three children aged nine, seven and four, who have busy social lives full of activities. Often, I feel that I have got into role of a chauffeur as they seem to want to do everything! With the new school year looming, I am wondering how do you get the balance right with after-school activities – I want to cultivate their interests, of course, but I don’t want to be “running around” all the time.

Children seem to lead much busier lives these days and parents can feel under increased pressure to provide more and more extra-curricular activities to keep up with what is demanded. However, it is not clear that all this activity is beneficial, so you are right to take a step back for a moment, to consider what is really important, especially before the busy schedules of the school term kick in.

The first thing to consider is that children need regular relaxed “downtime” as much as they need stimulation and new opportunities. Hanging around at home, and doing ordinary family-based things is as important as going to structured learning activities outside the home.

In fact, children learn important lessons by learning to manage time alone and creatively dealing with boredom, rather than having something always planned for them. In addition, regular relaxed time, simply chatting and connecting with their parents is a crucial component of ensuring children’s wellbeing. Simply put, chatting over dinner or the walk home from school is as crucial as attending ballet lessons or going to football.

As you say in your question, the goal is to achieve a good balance. Harmonious family life is achieved when you make a delicate balance between parents’ needs and children’s needs, between a child’s need for independence and their need for connection with their parents. These are personal family decisions.

You know you have achieved a good balanced routine when parenting is enjoyable, and your children are content and happy. The balance is getting out of kilter if your children appear stressed or tired or if you find yourself overstressed and “running around too much”. If your stress levels are too high, then this will take the good out of parenting and reduce your ability to be there for your children.

The key is to think through which activities are really important, to each of your children’s social, emotional and learning needs and just concentrate on those activities. In my experience, though they can initially complain that they are not doing as much as their friends, children are often much happier with doing less outside the home and being more involved in ordinary family activities.

In addition, careful planning can make a big difference to managing busy family schedules. Maybe you can organise it that your children do activities at the same time in the same place to save too many journeys or maybe you can share the burden of transport with other parents or even give your children some responsibility for getting there by themselves, etc.

In the planning you need to make sure the schedule meets your needs for relaxed personal time, as well as “fun” time with your children. The key is to find win-win solutions. For example, it might work well to prioritise taking your daughter to ballet lessons, if this is something important to her, if the journey gives you an enjoyable one-to-one time chatting with her, and you get to relax or read a favourite book while you wait for the lesson to finish. If you walk to and from the class, you even get your daily exercise in!

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, August 2010.  John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.