Back to School: The Parent’s survival guide to extra-curricular activities

The new school year comes with many stresses for parents (especially the newbies): lunchboxes to pack, school fees to pay, carpools to organise, school uniforms to launder, homework to help with…. and on top of that extra-curricular activities to choose and manage.

The latter troubles many parents due to the pressure these ventures place on our time, finances and sometimes even on the relationship with our children. We may ask, “What is enough or too much? Which activities are essential?”, and this uncertainty only adds to the tension.

Maybe we could simplify the matter. Let’s start by asking why we let our children participate in such activities in the first place?

            “She needs it to develop to her full potential.”

            “Everyone else does it, and I don’t want my child to be left behind.”

  “I excelled in or enjoyed {fill in the blank}, and I want my child to do too.”

Do any of these more or less represent your reasons for engaging your child in non-school activities? Although they are fully reasonable responses, they stem from personal or external expectations which are never a healthy basis for any parenting-related motives.

What does my child actually need?

Let’s review the fundamentals.

What do children need to develop optimally? To narrow it down to the bone: Nurturance. That is, to have his or her needs met – on a physical level (by providing for them), an emotional level (mainly through a caring relationship with their parents in which they are treasured, understood and gently guided), and a spiritual level (by praying with and for them). Naturally, at some point, they will also need a form of schooling. If you offer them the above, you are doing well and enough.

The rest, as the word “extra-curricular” suggests, are only “extra” add-ons. Think of it as a bonus cheque: although it may be eagerly used, it is not actually needed if you budgeted well.

Maybe a disclaimer is required: “optimal development” here refers to children’s growth towards becoming happy, healthy, well-functioning adults, not Olympic athletes or word-class violinists (who, by the way, may not be “optimally” developed in a holistic sense).

How many extra-curricular activities are advantageous?

The answer, as you undoubtedly know, is not straightforward. But the first step in determining this may be to ask two questions:

  1. What is my own capacity? I.e. how much funds, time and energy do I have to spend on this without neglecting other parts of life or becoming frazzled?
  2. What is my child’s capacity? Some temperaments flourish on staying busy with structured activities while others need more freedom; some opt to focus on one niche while others prefer more variety. The age of the child will also play a role.

Once you have honestly answered these questions – preferably with the help of your child, spouse and an outsider who knows the family well – move on to selecting appropriate activities.

Which activities are best?

Again, a million answers could fit here. The most suitable one may be: the ones my child chooses. This could be a real dilemma for parents as we often have our own ideas:

“Piano lessons! She’s clearly talented like her daddy!”

“He loves playing ball – rugby it should be!”

You may be right, and nobody knows your child like you do. However, be sure not to let your own desires guide you. Make suggestions to your child, but be careful not to manipulate – many children will pick up on your wishes and decide to please you rather than live out their dreams.

Keep in mind that children may go through many different phases. Allow them to experiment without pressure. There is no single “right” passtime. Therefore, a useful hint: do not invest too much in an activity before your child has proven that it’s not just a passing fad. Try to buy second-hand gear or borrow from friends at first.

And what about extra classes? Sounds very noble and necessary, doesn’t it? Still, ask yourself: does the desire for my child to perform better academically come from him or from me? Is there a genuine problem that needs professional help?

What is too much?

When a child is stressed out or loses her joy, it should tell us, “enough!” Life is tough. We do our kids a favour by allowing them the most stress-free childhoods we possibly can offer. If a child wants to quit an activity, let him finish the season/month/term to teach him endurance and consequence. Then, let him off the hook and permit him to try something new if that’s what he wants.

Keep in mind that some children are naturally prone to anxiety and quitting may not be the right answer in such cases, especially if they actually like the activity. Rather, help them work through their anxieties and encourage them to enjoy life even if it’s imperfect. Consider controlling the level or amount of competition these children engage in – especially at a young age!

The crux of the matter: let go of the pressure – our children’s wellbeing is not dependent on extra-curricular undertakings. However, it could be enhanced by activities that they find truly helpful or enjoyable and diminished by ones they loathe or that steal from peace in the home.

Need more back-to-school help?

Read here how to enjoy a prosperous back-to-school journey. This and this article will help you with re-establishing routines after the holiday. Or invite your friends and book a healthy lunchbox cooking session with Andalene Salvesen.

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