Have you ever seen gerbils running on a wheel inside their cage? They sure are intense little creatures — running with gusto around and around inside that silver circle. But have you ever considered how tired those little critters must get sometimes, doing the same thing over and over, day after day? Let's be honest: Isn't that how you feel sometimes as you run from place to place, chauffeuring your children from one activity to another?
Everybody thinks activities outside the home are good for kids. They help your child develop social connections, allow your child to have new experiences, and even give your child a jump start over other kids so that he or she will be more successful . . . or so the reasoning goes. But have you ever thought about what those activities really mean to your family's schedule and to your together time?
If you want to make a difference in your kid's life, then you need to be in your kid's life. No volleyball coach or piano teacher can take your place. You provide the loving environment, the security and the sense of belonging your child needs. But if you're constantly running, you're handing your child's heart and time over to someone who doesn't know — or care about — your child nearly as much as you do.
What if, for one moment, you could just step off the activity wheel? And what if that single moment could stretch into days or even several weeks? You could have more family laughter and less stress. You'd have the time to build memories and relationships your kids would never forget — even when they have homes and families of their own.
When you get off the activity wheel, you're making a choice to embrace what matters most, to keep your home and family a top priority. So how can you make the transition to a lifestyle that focuses on relationships instead of busyness . . . and puts you in the driver's seat as a parent? Use these five tips:
1. Don't expect it to happen all at once.
I fear that some parents may read this and say, "Oh my, have we ever missed the boat! I want everyone in the family room, pronto! All leaves are revoked; nobody is going anywhere. We're going to have family night every night. And we're going to have fun!"
It's good that you want to take some concrete steps toward change. But it's better to wade into these changes slowly, as if you're walking into a cold lake. Don't try to reinvent your family's routines overnight.
For example, let's say your kids are overcommitted to extracurricular activities. As a former dean of students, I always think in semesters. If you want to make changes, do it around the kitchen table toward the end of one semester as you begin thinking about the next.
Be aware, however, that change takes time. If you announce to your 15-year-old that you're suddenly available and expect him to be home more often as well, don't expect him to do backflips in celebration. He will have to make some radical adjustments as he learns to deal with the reality of a more intimate relationship with you. Your job, as the adult, is to realize that what your kids may perceive as a threat is really a gift.
2. Make sure it's all for one and one for all.
I love talking to farmers because they understand that, in a family that puts relationships first, everybody works and everybody pitches in. Pitching in creates one of the most important gifts you can give your children: a sense of belonging.
In our culture, unfortunately, too many families live as if parents exist solely for the independent advancement of each child. When the family acts as if a child's worth depends on what he or she can do outside the home, children have a much weaker sense of belonging inside the home.
If you treat your 8-year-old like a future Olympian or a Metropolitan Opera singer in training —doing all her chores so she can focus on her "special talent" — you may think you're giving her every advantage. But you're depriving her of the most important advantage: the sense of being a vital part of the family unit.
For a family to be relationship-focused, everybody must sacrifice. And everyone is important: The straight-A student is no more valuable or loved than the C-student class clown. The gifted athlete isn't more important than the shy, chubby lastborn. A child growing up in a home like that knows he may be cut from the team or kicked out of a club, but he'll always belong to his family. There will always be a place for him at the table, a hug when he needs one.
3. Don't fall back.
Once you've decided to get off the activity wheel, it takes work to stay off and handle the adjustments the transition brings. Busyness is as addictive as caffeine and sugar. Teenagers, in particular, who are often quite comfortable with a frenetic pace, may have a difficult time cutting back. You yourself may find it challenging to avoid slipping back into the trap if you fear your kids aren't reaching their potential. The truth is that putting them back on the wheel of endless activities is what keeps them from reaching their potential.
I know, I know — that sounds backward. Other parents may accuse you of robbing your children of great opportunities. But if your child is involved in too many activities, she'll lack the core value of belonging to something (the family) based on who she is (a beloved daughter and sister), not on what she does (score points, play an instrument, get top grades).
Besides, does having more options really help your child narrow down what's most important to her? By limiting your child's activities to one per term, you encourage her to hone in on her passions more effectively than trying out everything the planet has to offer.
4. Make the hard choices.
It can be tough to say no to your kids, but if you want to shift focus to the home court, you have to make some countercultural decisions. Will you let your son or daughter rent that stretch limo for the seventh-grade formal because other parents think it's a great idea? Or how about that movie that your fifth-grade son says "everyone" is seeing?
The earlier you develop a pattern of setting and maintaining healthy boundaries, the better off you'll be when your kids enter adolescence and begin taking on more responsibility. Remember, you're the parent; they're the children.
That doesn't mean you always say no, of course. At times, using common sense, you give your child space. Sometimes, though, you have to make an executive decision for the family. Move gently but firmly. Hear out objections because love doesn't demand its own way. But then make the call.
Giving your kids everything they want may produce fleeting happiness. But encouraging a greater commitment to your family's values by sometimes saying no produces healthy children.
5. Keep adjusting the boundaries.
When kids are learning to walk, you hold their hands to let them practice placing one foot in front of the other. In time, they learn the balance required to walk on their own. Then you hold their hands again to teach them safety when crossing streets. Eventually they learn to look both ways and navigate traffic themselves.
In other words, you hold them close, and then let them go.
That season-by-season, back-and-forth process of offering your comforting presence, alternated with giving your kids confident encouragement to step out into the world, marks the growth of healthy children. Your role changes not just during your transition to focus on time at home, but again and again through the years as your child prepares to one day hit the road.
The transition from the activity wheel into a family and home-oriented lifestyle isn't always easy, and it can be rocky. But the earlier you establish simple, family-centered routines, the easier it will be. Whether your child is 15 months old or 15 years old, there's no time like the present. So plunge in and give it your best shot! You'll be glad you did.
Adapted from It's Your Kid, Not a Gerbil. Copyright © 2011 Dr. Kevin Leman. Used with permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
This article first appeared in the August/September issue of Thriving Family magazine. Copyright © 2011 by Dr. Kevin Leman. ThrivingFamily.com.
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