Parenting Lessons: Step Three: Figuring out what your child can really handle

In the last step, you focused on your values and took a hard look at your child's schedule in light of those values. Now you'll learn how many activities your child can truly handle. Plus, you'll find out how to broach the activity-cutting topic with your child, and get her involved in modifying her schedule.

The value of downtime
By definition, children are immature and unfinished. They must try on different roles and try new activities as they figure out what suits and interests them. And so it's no wonder that they're so busy. Yet allowing children time to do nothing at all is equally important and often the most productive time. Rather than leaving kids bored, as some parents fear, those empty hours teach children how to create their own happiness - an important skill we would all benefit from developing. Unscheduled time encourages children to create, to imagine, to wonder about things that fascinate them and to see new possibilities that no one before has thought of. It teaches children to fill their own empty time enjoyably.

Kids' schedules should be balanced between time spent socializing and participating in activities, time spent on homework and academic enrichment, and down time which they can use as they choose. Most children enjoy participating in one or two structured activities per week after school or on weekends. Any more than that and they may begin to feel overloaded.

How much can your child handle?
Try this experiment: Take the point of view of each one of your children and look at their schedules (the ones you wrote out in lesson one and highlighted in lesson two). Imagine yourself, at your child's age, awakening in the morning, getting ready for school and going through a complete day. Is it hurried? Stressful? Is it fun? Is there time to relax? Is it tiring? Is there time to spend alone, with mom and dad, with friends? If you were your child, how would you feel at the end of each day? Finally, ask yourself if that is the kind of life you really want your child to be living.

What your child wants
Now that you've gotten a sense of how your children might feel, it's time to talk to them about their schedule. Since most parents report that the important conversations with their children come up sideways - in the car, in the kitchen, as you are cleaning up after dinner together, or as you are tucking them into bed - you may want to use one of these times to bring up this up casually. Or, if you prefer, you could always sit down to a family meeting. It's important to remember that this conversation should be the beginning of an on-going negotiation rather than a one-time-only discussion where the result is immediate and final. Also keep in mind that you and your child will most likely have to compromise to reach an agreement. Still, your goal should be to make your child feel, as much as possible, that she is free to rework her schedule her way. She will be more satisfied if she feels that she made this decision on her own, even if it is with your guidance.


Begin the conversation by explaining how you are feeling about your own hectic schedule and your wish to have more free time. By sharing your views first, you make it possible for your child to cut back on her activities without fear of disappointing you. Ask her if she sometimes feels like her days are too busy. Does she sometimes wish she had more free time to play with her friends? To read? Or to just relax after school? If your child has already starting showing signs of stress caused by activity overload, be sure to express your concerns about her health and well being.

Show your child the schedule you made. Before you explain why you checked certain activities as being important to keep, ask your child which activities she enjoys the most, and which ones she would miss. Allow her to spend a few days thinking about the activities she wants to keep. Ask her to put a star next to those that are most important to her. Let her know that she will not have to give up all activities without stars - you just want to know which ones are essential to keep, in her opinion.

In the next step, learn how to decide which activities should make the final cut, plus how to make a simpler schedule work for your entire family.

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