I’ve recently adopted the KonMari approach to dealing with after-school activities. If it doesn’t spark joy, we are bagging that extracurricular up and tossing it out. And it is working like a charm. Sort of…

It’s autumn, and for us that means farewell to relaxed Saturday mornings and hello to the team-sport juggle … (three cheers to McCafe drive-thru for caffeine sponsorship again this season.)

With four kids and five sports, things can get a little crazy on weekends (including the toddler stuck on the sidelines, watching Peppa Pig re-runs on my phone). Occasionally, as I fling one of my girls onto the court with three seconds to spare, I wonder if it is all worth it.

There’s a theory floating around on social media that too many activities are making our kids stressed and anxious. As we raced to the car last Saturday morning, I could see merit in this idea. The sound of me barking a harried sporting equipment roll call is enough to make even the Dalai Lama anxious. “Shin pads? Yep. Boots? Yep. Gym grips? Yep. Goggles? Yep. Water bottles? Yep. Go, go, go.”

I was whining about our hectic weekends to a friend at a party recently (invite me, I’m a blast!), and she tilted her head and said:

“Wow. That sounds crazy. It’s not for us though, we take a more gentle approach to weekends. Hanging at home or a picnic at the park. I guess I’m a slack mum, but I want to protect their childhood. You know, giving the kids time to just be kids.”

And then, the clincher:

“Though, I’ve read it’s important for their mental health to have tonnes of unstructured time. Kids are too pressured these days. But maybe I’m just lazy,” she said with a laugh.

Mother guilt grabbed me by the throat. Was her humble-brag-but-perhaps-just-defensiveness correct? Was all this getting to gym and swim robbing my kids of a … childhood? Damn it!

I’d been mildly proud of myself for supporting my girls’ passions like an after-school-activities-timetabling ninja. Perhaps instead I’d been structuring them into an anxiety disorder?

Immediately (because all my best decisions are made on impulse) I decided we’d pull the pin on some activities. Simplify. Minimalise. Unschedule. I began marinating on the idyllic idea of my kids hanging out in the backyard indulging in the ancient arts of tree climbing, mudpie making and using their imaginations. Goodbye soccer and violin practice, my kids are having a childhood.

girl-with-soccer-ball

My problem was, reality.

When we stay home for too long and the kids are left to their own devices, they usually end up, well, on their devices. Or on me. Or begging to make slime. None of these activities end well.

And also, they love sports. Trying to wrestle gymnastics, netball or soccer from them would certainly end in tears. While busy is no badge of honour, for us it seems to work to have a few locked-in activities. The kids are happier and less time is spent arguing about screens and slime (and let’s face it, that’s around 85% of parenting right there).

Overscheduled or just having fun?

Because second-guessing my approach to motherhood is my specialty, I hit up Dr Google and my psychology research databases to referee this debate.

While there was a lot of opinion and speculation, there’s not a lot of hard evidence about the evils of after-school activities. There was a 2010 study in the Journal of School Health which found that 78% of children wished they had more free time (don’t we all darlings!). The results of some small research studies, mostly involving kids who didn’t get home until 9-10pm (and 15-month-olds in language classes!), suggested that too many activities were not beneficial.

But according to The Over-scheduling Myth, a report from research group Child Trends, the idea that many children were over-scheduled and suffering was false. An unfounded hunch. A media beat-up.

Academic improvement and self-esteem boost

Meanwhile, a tonne of research found that involvement in after-school activities was linked to improved academic performance, higher self-esteem, more focused attention and a reduction in hyperactivity and depression. And specifically, learning a musical instrument can improve cognitive function, memory and language skills. (Good to know my kids are getting smarter while they torture the neighbour’s dog with their violins).

Researchers have also found that kids involved in extracurricular activities are less likely to experiment with drugs and are older when they have their first sexual experience. Huh.

I don’t doubt there are some pushy-pants parents out there, living out their dreams via their offspring and causing damage. But from what I’ve seen, most are just your average Joes, rockin’ up to soccer when they’d rather be in bed, because their kiddo seems to enjoy it.

So, the bottom line for extracurricular activities seems to be, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Conclusion: do what works for your own unique family and lifestyle. Guilt free.

Sparking joy: farewell hip hop

Having settled that matter, I turned to hardcore organising style KonMarie to streamline our choice of activities. The first step was to identify the clutter.

It takes a bit of trial and error (and a bunch of wasted enrolment fees) to identify the clutter from the activities that spark joy. Just like that Hawaiian shirt you bought on holidays, your kids are going to enthusiastically sign up for things they don’t actually like.

My girls have tried ballet, swimming, violin, netball, string ensemble, soccer, flute, musical theatre, gymnastics, basketball, cooking, art, school band, tap dance, physical culture, jazz dance and piano. And probably some other activities I’ve blocked from memory. Basically, I’m raising a bunch of expensive try-hards.

But much of it didn’t spark joy, so we’ve let it go. For example, my five-year-old’s BFF recently invited her to hip-hop. She was as keen as a kid on Christmas morning. I was sold too. The idea of my reserved child bustin’ a groove at an end of year concert absolutely filled me with joy. This was going to be awesome!

Until the next week rolled around: “Mummy, can I go to the class but just not do the dancing bit? It’s very tiring and it feels … weird.” After much soul-searching, we discovered the joy was really about hanging out with her buddy. She loved this friend enormously. Dance class? Not so much. So we thanked hip hop for its lesson and sent it on its way.

swimming lessons are a non negotiableMummy (doesn’t always) know best

KonMarie recommends the use of “intuition” to identify clutter. Careful with this one. Sometimes my intuition is as reliable as my commitment to exercise. For example, the time I decided my middle daughter should absolutely do soccer.

She’s an anxious whippet of a kid who can run fast, and so I thought the argy-bargy of soccer might help engineer some resilience.

Turns out my intuition was wrong. She didn’t enjoy the game of “all the kids shoving” at all. And so, we thanked soccer for its lesson (at the end of a laborious season, because we can’t let the team down!)

PRO TIP: If your un-coordinated six-Year-old thinks soccer sucks, no-one is really going to mind if you “let the team down” and make way for someone else), and sent her boots off to Vinnies.

The joy of hard work

The good news is that as the kids get older, they get better at identifying what sparks joy. The clutter seems to naturally disappear as they become more acquainted with themselves.

These days Miss 10 is the enthusiastic member of two netball teams, a soccer team, swim club and string ensemble. She’s a less enthusiastic member of piano and violin lessons, but every time I suggest she quit, she refuses. She really does want to be able to play the piano and violin, it’s just bloody hard work.

And this is where “joy” gets complicated. Some things in life that don’t spark joy immediately are worthwhile sticking with. Those swimming lessons my girls whine about? Pretty sure they’ll be glad we held onto them if they ever get caught in a rip.

So I’m being a little stubborn about swimming lessons and music lessons until they reach high school. I hope they will have pushed through the hard work to reach the joy by then, but if not, they’ll be free to thank them for (their expensive) lessons and let them go.

Some activities are a bit like those bags you fill up to donate, but never quite get there. You trip over them in the hallway. You move them to the front door. Then you drive around with them in your boot for a few months. Finally, in a moment of clarity, you dump (err, donate) them in the Salvo’s bin. For us, my money’s on the violin!

Author

Jillian Berry is the exhausted mother of four spirited daughters. Once a journo and editor, she now enjoys torturing her children with zucchini. When she’s not searching for her phone charger, she can be found trying to remember her password, which she only reset yesterday. She fantasizes about escaping to a remote island with her Kindle and a giant jar of Nutella. She’s also a (provisional) psychologist who’d love to make the world a better place, if only she could find the energy.

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