It was a typical Thursday. While my seven-year-old daughter was wrapping up her chorus rehearsal, I watched as my nine-year-old, who is autistic, began to lose patience. With five minutes left to go, he snapped and took off into the street, leaving me and my toddler to push our way through the grumpy commuters to try to catch him.
Once I’d reached him and calmed him down, we walked back to the car and I remembered that we still had his trumpet lesson later that night. I offered to cancel—there was no way any of us had the bandwidth left for another activity at that point. His relief was palpable and, in that moment, I knew I needed to make a change.
In my suburban world, moms frequently brag about chauffeur duties and overscheduled exhaustion. We complain about a lack of free time but still set our alarms for 6 a.m. on registration days to sign up for activities and classes before they fill up. We spend our dinner hours at soccer practices, piano lessons and math enrichment classes. We talk about secondary school in the preschool pickup lane. We discuss college at grade-school PTA meetings.
But my son’s anxiety snowballed as he grew, and now he often feels panicked unexpectedly. The fear of him melting down or running away has forced me to re-evaluate how my family spends our time outside of school. Previously, our schedule was packed with activities like taekwondo, trumpet lessons, art classes and chorus. Even my two-year-old took ballet and gymnastics on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. But every minute was torture for my son. The waiting, the crowds, the quick dinners in the car, the cranky bedtimes, the constant fighting and particularly the disapproval pouring off nearby parents as he struggled to contain his discomfort and frustration.
Really, it was torture for all of us—even when we weren’t in the middle of a family crisis.
Does parenting even matter?That night, I made a few phone calls and sent some emails. I swallowed my pride and told directors and teachers that my family was going through a personal rough patch. I cried and convinced myself that this was temporary. We’d make sure my son got the behavioural support he needed so we could rejoin the rest of the world in their regular daily pursuit of…whatever it is we are all pursuing.
The next day, I picked up everyone after school and drove straight back to our house. All three kids cheered. They ran upstairs and poured a giant tub of Lego bricks onto the floor. They spent hours building a city until I called them down to dinner. I didn’t hear one complaint, even when the two-year-old waddled over and smashed part of her sister’s castle. I finished up some work emails while dinner was cooking. I washed the dishes without yelling, pleading or breaking up fist fights. The entire day felt luxurious—like a vacation!
The next day, none of the kids even asked where we were going after school. We arrived home and they went right back up to build. When an argument broke out, my two girls went out back to play on the swings. My son came down and helped me in the kitchen. Then he went out to swing, too, and once again I marvelled at the quiet in the house.
Listen to Mel and Evanka talk over-scheduling with a mother of seven on the Moms in the Middle podcast.
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Over the next two weeks, my kids asked occasionally about their missing activities. But they never once asked why we weren’t going or when we would start back up. Relief and a new sense of normalcy replaced my guilt and anxiety. With very little intervention or planning on my part, my kids did art projects, played games, destroyed the house with a Barbie war, planted an herb garden and ate dinner at the table with us every night. They also argued, scraped their knees, drove me crazy and did all the stuff that kids are supposed to do to learn and grow. But my son’s meltdowns decreased dramatically.
“I’m so sorry you had to drop all your activities,” a friend told me at school drop-off one day. “When do you think your life will get back to normal?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. But what I wanted to say was maybe never. My kids were happier than they’d ever been!
“Your son was so close to his brown belt,” she said, shaking her head. “And what about chorus?”
I could feel my anxiety creeping back in. But still, something kept me from even tiptoeing back toward those scheduled weekday activities. My son got the support he needed, and my toddler grew into big-kid clothes and started school. Still, every afternoon, my house was filled with laughter and shouting as my kids tore through the house to play, draw, argue and jump on the trampoline.
It felt right. Somehow, it felt wildly peaceful.
The next year, I tempted fate by enrolling my middle daughter in an art class. Just one activity during the week couldn’t hurt, right? It threw off our balance immediately. Despite being an avid artist who spent hours a day drawing and doing her own projects, she groaned and begged not to go to class on those Wednesday afternoons. It became our family’s least favourite day of the week. On those nights, we consistently had more arguments and whining.
So we dropped the class and went back to our unstructured weekday afternoons and evenings, and we haven’t looked back since. I don’t judge my friends for enrolling their kids in daily activities, but it’s just not the path for us.
Without prompting, my three kids draw, play on the swings, code Minecraft mods, help cook dinner and get absolutely filthy playing in the backyard together, as best friends as well as siblings. They are deeply bonded to one another, much more so than they used to be. Will this hurt their chances of playing a varsity sport when they’re older? Will this mean that they’re not the first chair in orchestra or fluent in Chinese by ninth grade? Probably. But we’re happier and calmer now. We enjoy our time together. And for us, life is so much more fun this way.