September isn't just when kids head back to school—it's also when parents scramble to get their kids into extracurricular activities. For many families, that's not as easy as it sounds. Some can't afford it. Others have no way to get their kids to lessons when working long hours. Some families have just not been able to create the bandwidth needed to sit down and figure out an extracurricular schedule that their children would enjoy and that would fit into their hectic lives. And then there are those who, despite their best efforts, couldn't snag a coveted spot at an affordable, city-run program.
If you fit into one of the categories above, you find yourself feeling guilty that while other kids will be doing ballet, violin, soccer and swimming, yours...won't. You may feel like you've let your kids down
As a child psychologist, here's my best advice to you: Be gentle with yourself!
Although extracurricular experiences are important for children to develop a full understanding of themselves and their strengths and passions, it is not the end of the world if kids miss a term or two of such activities. There's something that's actually way more important for children: that their family has a kind of weekly rhythm that's manageable for their parents to maintain. Ideally, you're able to settle into a routine that does not take too much parental energy to keep going. I'm talking here about set dinner and bedtimes, taco Tuesdays, Friday family board games night, Sundays with extended family, etc. Developing a rhythm allows for tasks of the week to be anticipated and therefore completed more easily. Easier means less stress for parents. We do not want children to witness their parents completely stressed out.
Moreover, there are other ways that families can create extracurricular learning experiences for their children. Not all learning needs to happen on a strict schedule! There is beauty and fun in spontaneity.
Here are some of my favourite alternatives to regularly scheduled extracurricular activities:
1. Family swims and skating outings
2. Free entry days at local museums or galleries
3. Trips to the various parks and playgrounds in the region
4. Drop in activities at community centres or art studios
5. Weekend trips to the local library
6. Community events, like concerts in the park, parades and 5k walk/runs for charitable causes
7. After-school care programs. (The programs have been a blessing for my own children who have had the opportunity to try a variety of crafts, games and sports that I would never have thought of, and all the while getting to form friendships with children in different classrooms and/or grades.)
Stressed-out parents tend to create anxious kids, and guilt-ridden parents tend to create a family atmosphere that lacks joy and self-forgiveness. Children learn how to emotionally regulate by watching how their parents do it. A sustainable family rhythm that allows a sense of calm predictability and effective emotional regulation within the family is crucial and is arguably more important than regularly scheduled extracurricular activities for child development in the long run.
Dr. Jillian Roberts is a child psychologist and professor at the University of Victoria. She is the author of Calm, which was written to remind us that the little people in our lives need us to be their calm.