At school, when 10-year-old Freya writes about, or draws pictures, of her week, she often asks her teachers for extra paper. It’s not that she’s a prolific writer or artist. It’s just that Freya’s parents pack a lot into her schedule, and her evenings and weekends are crammed with activities.
In term-time, when she isn’t at ballet or swimming, she’s studying French and the piano, or she’s horse riding. And in the holidays her mum Lissa signs Freya up for camps to learn even more new skills – in the last year she’s done gymnastics, creative writing and art.
‘It’s true Freya’s spare time is go, go, go!’ says 49-year-old Lissa, who works as a part-time accountant. ‘Our lives are very busy, but then aren’t most people’s lives hectic these days?
‘Freya’s an easy child to look after. All I have to do is collect her from some activities and take her to others. She falls into bed at night, exhausted. I sometimes worry she’s doing too much when she’s looking especially tired, but that’s a small price to pay for all the opportunities available to children nowadays. Nothing like this was around when I was younger, so I want to make sure Freya takes every chance she’s given to try new things.’
Lissa isn’t alone. Most of us jump at the opportunity to introduce our children to new hobbies or classes where they can learn to master a foreign language or play a musical instrument. Whether they’re five or 15, we sign them up for soccer, dance and drama, and urge them to partake in snowboarding, skiing, snorkelling and surfing. Soon there isn’t a free slot in our children’s diaries for months and we hurtle from A to B, dropping them off and picking them up. And with the choice of activities getting wider, it looks like their lives are going to continue being hectic.
‘Every activity you can imagine is available in Dubai in school or outside of school,’ says Adam Zargar, a life coach at UAE Coaching (www.uaecoaching.com). ‘Most schools do after-school clubs, which the teachers run, and there are some, such as Ductac, that are either in malls or have independent indoor as well as outdoor facilities. There are all the usual activities such as soccer, swimming, ballet and gymnastics, but there are also unusual classes such as child life coaching, mad science and golf courses.’
So, with something for everyone, enrolling our children for these classes seems the obvious thing to do, especially if parents need help with childcare.
‘Children often want to do the activities as much as their parents push them to do them,’ says Adam. ‘Kids are especially keen to take part in things if their friends are also signed up for them. Parents may also feel that the more their children do, the greater the chance of discovering a strength or passion for something.’
British Olympic gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill is proof of this. She talks of how her parents introduced her to athletics by taking her to holiday sessions at Sheffield’s Don Valley Stadium in the UK while she was still at primary school. In later years she joked: ‘I think my mum and dad wanted me out of the house!’ Whether there’s any truth in that or not, that summer course sparked her love of a sport for which she is now world famous.
But while the odd class here and there is stimulating and is a chance to make new friends or discover a dormant talent, when does it all become too much? When is being busy too busy?
According to UK parenting expert Sue Atkins, it’s all about balance. Sue says kids play outside 50 per cent less than they used to in previous generations, which has led to rising obesity and attention-deficit problems.
‘It’s definitely a good idea to encourage your child to take up an after-school activity that has them running around and stimulating their minds,’ she says, ‘especially since research shows that children who are active perform better academically.’
But she, too, is aware that we can overdo our children’s organised fun to such an extent that we start to rob them of the very things – time, freedom and space – that make childhood so special, memorable and carefree.
‘We live in a busy, frenetic world. We’re always rushing from one thing to another, and we urge our children to do the same. We must remember we’re human beings, not human doings!’ says Sue, author of Parenting Made Easy, How to Raise Happy Children (Wiley). ‘Downtime is important for all of us.’
Mum-of-two Lynette Bloin recognises her sons Sebastien, five, and Alexandre, three, can get cranky when they’re doing too many activities. The boys do swimming, French, gymnastics and football.
Generally, their schedule works well and Lynette and her husband Benoit have seen their boys’ confidence grow.
‘The gymnastics really helped with Sebastien’s coordination and both boys have grown in confidence,’ says Lynette, 39, who lived in Dubai for six years before moving to Abu Dhabi four years ago. ‘But if they start to get cranky and tired, or they cry easily or get stroppy, we reassess the classes they’re enrolled for. We pulled French and gymnastics last term for that reason.
‘There’s a temptation to send your children to try everything available. A lot of stay-at-home mums see their children as projects, and many have a fear their sons and daughters aren’t doing enough.
‘Children need good CVs these days to get into the best schools, so their parents push them to do more and more. All the extra activities can become overpowering.
‘Also, when children are at classes, it gives parents a break. And when they get home, the children are tired.’
Fiona Wong, a virtual personal assistant who lives in Dubai, makes a conscious effort not to overload her sons Max, who is seven, and Leo, four. The boys do just two activities – football and swimming.
‘Their day at Nord Anglia school is very tiring and they’re worked pretty hard,’ says Fiona, 43. ‘School is from 7.30am to 3pm. If they do an activity, they’re at school until 4pm.
‘I come across a lot of families who encourage or push their children to attend an activity every day and at weekends. That is something I don’t wish for my children. We value downtime and often stay in the house watching TV, playing cards or drawing at weekends. I’ve been known not to attend activities if I feel my children are too tired.’
How do we start if we want to reassess our children’s schedules?
Sue Atkins suggests that we examine our motives for filling up our kids’ diaries.
‘If you longed to play the piano when you were little but you never had the chance, or if your parents couldn’t afford karate classes, you may well jump at the chance to sign your own children up for these things,’ says Sue. If all their friends are going or if there’s a qualification at the end of it, we may send our kids to badminton, drama or fencing class, for example.
Also, organised fun is an easy option for parents. Anyone who has ever spent a day with a five-year-old knows it’s less demanding to drop them off at craft or cricket class than sit on the floor playing with toy soldiers and dolls for hours, and it’s certainly less messy to let them do art outside the home.
According to Adam Zargar, two or three activities a week is enough. More than that, he says, and children will get tired, agitated or angry, they won’t have time for themselves or their friends and they may end up quitting something they enjoy just to get some space in their schedule.
Sue Atkins, who was a deputy head teacher before becoming a parenting coach, adds: ‘I’ve taught many stressed-out children who went from a busy day at school to ballet lessons, a judo session, to a tutor and then home to do their homework, when they were only eight years old!
‘Children can experience burnout too. Those who do too much are always anxious. They can’t relax. They tend to be perfectionists. They look dour. You never see them laughing. Because they’ve been overstretched, they can start to have attention deficit and hyperactivity issues.
‘Often it takes something major like a meltdown or a massive tantrum for a family to stop, look at their schedules, and realise they’ve taken on too much.’
When the time comes to prune our wall-to-wall activities, Sue suggests we ask our children if they enjoy a session. Often, there will be some pursuits that are less popular, which makes saying goodbye easier. But Sue urges us against allowing our children to quit everything after a few sessions. ‘Sometimes, when we try new things, we hit a plateau and that’s when we give up,’ she says. ‘If we push through and keep on practising, we will master that skill. Children who dabble in activities without ever mastering them grow up to be people who start projects and never finish them.’
Sue also advises that instead of outsourcing our children’s entertainment, we make some of their favourite activities a family occasion.
She explains: ‘If they love football, then an after-school football class is a great idea, but instead of sending your children to a swimming club at weekends, where they just swim lanes, why don’t you all go swimming together as a family and have some fun? ‘You will build bonds and memories that last a lifetime. They will cherish time with their parents far more than any after-school club.’ Furthermore, Sue says that far from being appalled when we hear our excitement-hungry children say: ‘Mum, Dad, I’m bored!’ we should be grateful they’re experiencing quiet time, and learning how to handle it.
‘Children who experience boredom have to learn to be inventive and keep themselves entertained,’ says Sue, ‘and this is a skill that, once learnt, will stay with them for life. If they’re not busy 24/7, it doesn’t mean they’re wasting their lives. Downtime, when you’re not learning or doing something, is of great importance.
‘Downtime is for peace and quiet, and for reflection. We all sleep better and feel better when we’ve had some time to ponder! Put plenty of ordinary, everyday things into your children’s lives, like going for a walk with the dog or ambling along a beach. That way, they’ll savour the small things in life and appreciate their magnificence.’
The Can Do Kid Journal by Sue Atkins is available at www.thesueatkins.com