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Why Protecting Your Family's Downtime Makes Kids & Parents Happier

KJ Dell'Antonia
August 24, 2018
KJ Dell'Antonia
Written by
Photo by MaaHoo Studio
August 24, 2018

We're heading pell-mell into fall, a time of fresh starts but also just plain starts, especially for parents and kids. It's the start of school and of fall sports, of clubs, and play practice and music lessons and robotics and tutoring and pottery. Time to get out the calendar and start penciling it in, because there's much to be done and not much time in which to do it.

Or not.

Take a big breath, and maybe—if it's not too late—set down the pen with which one fills out the forms to sign up the child for all the things and to permit everyone involved to administer emergency aid should chess club take a dangerous turn. Because while there is a multitude of opportunities available for our kids, trying to fit them all in doesn't contribute to anyone's happiness—not our children's, and not our own. Instead, it leaves us feeling like we're constantly trying to outrun a timer we didn't set.

There are only so many hours in a day. We can't do everything, and our children can't do everything, either. Making realistic choices, and drawing realistic limits, is key to feeling happier about the daily patterns of our lives.

There's so much out there, and for many of us, most of it involves things we didn't have access to as a child. It's honestly hard to resist planning for our kids to rush from ukulele club to gymnastics just to fit it all in. But downtime is important, too. Denise Pope, one of the authors of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids, told me that young children need an hour of play time (not homework time or bath time or dinnertime, play time) for every after-school scheduled hour. Teens need that space, too, but in their case, they need to be able to chill in their rooms or hang out with friends.

Commuting time does not count as downtime. Clubs and practices and study hall do not count as downtime. What does count? Any time your child can spend in a place of his or her choosing, doing the things he or she wants to do, whether that’s Lego or an art project or a game with others or just lying on their back in the dining room, tossing a ball in the air under the table.

Photo: MaaHoo Studio

That's it—but it's so important. Downtime is every bit as important as any sport, lesson, or activity. Kids without it aren't learning how to make their own choices about what to do and when to do it. In the short run, that leads to the deadly "I'm bored" when rare free time does pop up, but in the long run, it means children arriving at college are still looking to outside forces to tell them what to do next and when. Downtime is when children and teenagers figure out who they are and why they do what they do. It's not what happens in the car in between violin and Kumon.

Some kids will want more on the schedule. I have one child who would play every sport and join every club out of sheer enthusiasm; you may have an ambitious teen who thinks pushing the limits of sleep and time is the only route to success. That's when it's important to talk about why we give downtime a protected block on the schedule, and to include it in the choices and plans you offer your child. For a younger child, remind them of all they love to do when they're free. If you stay after school for clubs three days a week, and play soccer on the other two, when will you invite a friend over to play, or ride your bike in the driveway? Teenagers can consider how they feel at night, when all the work is done and the activities over. That's their time. When they look at it that way, they may want more of it.

Or they may not. If that's the case, it's your job to make a healthy choice, one that protects downtime while allowing space for the unexpected. Your child may be willing to push their own limits, and you may understand that. It's hard to say no to the invitation to join the extra show choir or travel team. But there will be other opportunities and other seasons. Meanwhile, there will be your child, able to breathe at the end of the day instead of rushing off to something else—and you, freed of the need to carpool and cajole and able to enjoy some space at the end of your day, as well.

Busy mom? Here's how other moms are finding balance.

KJ Dell'Antonia author page.
KJ Dell'Antonia

KJ Dell'Antonia is a writer and a regular contributor to the New York Times, where she wrote and edited the Motherlode blog from 2011 until 2016 and was a contributing editor to the Well Family section from 2016 to 2017. Prior to that, she was one of Slate's XX Factor bloggers and a contributor to Slate, where she covered parenting and a broad range of subjects, from legal issues to pop culture. She is the author of How to Be a Happier Parent. KJ lives in Lyme, New Hampshire, with her husband and four children.