Sunday, November 17, 2013


Fred Flintstone Expectations in a Flextime World

Yesterday, in the car:

The Girl: Daddy, when you were my age, did you play any organized sports?

Me: No.

(long pause)

TG: Really?  

Families in our area are so busy chauffeuring kids to this event or that one that it’s hard to believe that there was once a time when that wasn’t true.  

Fall baseball for The Boy ended at the end of October, so we had a brief break that ended last week with the start of basketball.  He also has music lessons, jazz band, and Lego League.  TG has gymnastics, music lessons, “band jam,” and Lego League.  (Band Jam is a weekly group rehearsal with other kids at the place where she takes music lessons.  She’s the band’s keyboardist.)  Lego League is in the home stretch, leading up to some all-day meets in December at which teams compete at putting robots through obstacle courses.  Band Jam leads up to a concert in December, too.  Baseball peaks in May and October; basketball peaks in February.  

Every single one of those activities brings obligations to drive.  Many of them involve two round trips, because the events themselves are too long to make it reasonable to stick around.  That changes when basketball moves from practices to games, but we aren’t there yet.  At least basketball games are indoors, and therefore climate controlled; that last Fall baseball game was brutally cold.  

I’m just old enough to remember when parents could tell kids to “go play” and be done with it.  (For that matter, I remember afternoon newspapers, and parents watching the six o’clock news after work.  It was a different time.)  it doesn’t work like that anymore.  And an individual family can’t opt out, since if others don’t, there’s nobody for the kids to play with.

I consider myself lucky in that I get home at a reasonable hour most days.  (The trick is going in absurdly early.) But practices usually start at five, which means getting the kids in the car before that.  If TW worked the same hours I do, we couldn’t do it.  Even now, on certain nights of the week, staying late requires a multi-stage planning process.  

As the kids get older, their activities become more consuming.  Teams start to travel from town to town, adding time.  (For TB’s Fall baseball, we had games in towns 45 minutes away.  We had to arrive an hour early for practice, followed by a two-hour game and a return drive.  With afternoon games, that pretty much shoots the day.)  When games fall on varying nights of the week, they cause a domino effect with other obligations.  The game bumps the music lesson, which bumps the haircut, which has to be rescheduled for...let’s see...

Despite all of the obvious workforce changes of the last few decades, parents are still assumed and expected to be available on consistent evenings and weekends, in the windows of time built around traditional full-time work.  The activities are built on the assumption that we all clock out at the same time, like Fred Flintstone.  If parents have varying hours, heaven help them.  If they have “afternoon” shifts, well, good luck.  (Some get help from grandparents and extended family, but that’s only practical if they’re local.)  Even with relatively traditional hours, I can’t imagine how single parents negotiate this stuff.  It feels -- and to some degree, works -- like a screening mechanism.  The parents who can’t negotiate the logistics have to see their kids left out, or have to cobble together precarious arrangements.  The ones who can are just exhausted.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  If the public schools had the capacity, they could absorb some of this into the after-school period.  Suddenly, activities would make transportation easier, not harder.  But by privatizing nearly everything, we’ve forced parents into either becoming amateur chauffeurs or keeping their kids out of anything enriching.  Any individual activity can be rationalized, but the accumulation has become dysfunctional.  The economies of scale -- whether in terms of money, time, or effort -- that could come from coordination are lost when it’s every family for itself.  

The world in which it was normal to tell kids to “go play” is so thoroughly lost that The Girl simply couldn’t fathom that it had ever existed.  But it did; I remember it.  The workplace has left Fred Flintstone’s hours behind, but parents are expected more than ever to conform to them.  This is what happens when we abandon the public sphere.  I don’t miss the world of the Flintstones, but I wouldn’t mind seeing some public options again.

In the city where I live, lots of kids still "go out to play", walking or bicycling to the nearest ball court or open gym or ball field or skate park. (It is possible that a lot of them are from the groups you worried don't have transportation.) And a lot of others "go in to play" video games.

The changes I see are

0) More moms are now working rather than running the soccer van shuttle operation for their kids and others.

1) Many parents who went out to play as kids forbid their own kids from doing the same. (I've never quite understood the origin of that paraonia. National horror stories on every local news show?) This is compounded by a lower kid density, so a spontaneous pickup game of street football or whiffle ball just isn't possible and twitter hasn't filled that need.

2) A huge growth in "travel leagues" that introduce good coaching before middle school and, as kids get older, make it available all year, not just "in season". This (like PEDs for kids) is fed by interest in getting a college scholarship in everything from cross country to volleyball and pro money in football and basketball.

The likelihood of kids picking (or getting picked for) a particular sport as tweens might be greater if you live in a city where a fair number of such kids have had pro careers, not to mention Tommy John surgery while still in HS.
I wonder if this will change over time to something else.

As someone who is planning on having kids in the near future, I read things like this and cringe. The idea of packing every waking hour out of school with sport or other activity, complete with driving and gas costs, just isn't appealing to me as a parent. This might count for something, actually.

This also may change as jobs genuinely become more flexible and modern. As you point out, most activities depend on one or more parents leaving work at 5 PM sharp to work smoothly. In some areas (software development and IT, for example), leaving a fixed time everyday with exact consistency isn't really a possibility. This could bring about some change as well.
I think you're right on all of these accounts, but there's one point you don't address: limits. As you explain, you and your partner are only able to accommodate all of these activities because your wife doesn't work the same hours as you. My husband and I are both academics, so our schedules are somewhat more flexible in the sense of when we're finished teaching for the day. As parents to three children, we've found that the only way we can provide these avenues for enrichment is to limit each child to one activity. Logistically, we just can't drive anyone to any more places than we already do, and financially we're indentured servants to student loans until we're near retirement age. We have one night of church youth group for the two younger ones (4-yr old and 7-yr old), please each of them has chosen to take dance lessons. The teenage chooses guitar lessons, which are also just once a week. This is manageable.

I think there's something really important to be said in support of consciously *not* plugging kids into every activity they like--even if it's an enrichment-type program--especially at an early age. I worry that kids get so used to an event-oriented lifestyle that they lose a sense of comfort with just relaxing and spending time with family (that still happens right?) or what could be their own pace of life. What happens when they're older and suddenly Mom or Dad isn't there to schedule every detail of their life? Kids will get to a life of hectic schedules and places to be soon enough; I think it's at least worth it to consider slowing down the pace a bit and demonstrating how healthy some downtime can be.
So who held a gun to your head and made you enroll the kids in all these activities?

Might their brains not develop in self-directed play?
It sounds as if your kids are spending a huge amount of time in structured activities compared to what I remember from my own childhood.

When I was growing up, each of us had one organized activity a week. Other evenings we did homework, or played with neighbourhood friends. There was also a weekly family trip to the library, and possibly one to the art gallery — but those were family trips.

Lego League sounds dreadfully organized for something I remember as just being fun. But then, lego seems to have moved towards selling kits that make just one toy, rather than boxes of blocks that let you make whatever your imagination lets you. What happened to simply messing about with a big box of lego?
Could the scheduling of organized activities "weed out" kids due to parents not being able to provide transport? Sure. The cost, some of which are astronomical, do the same. Sure. However, we can't chalk it all up to a class warfare-eque attempt to keep family to such activities only if they have the time, money and jobs to accommodate.

Somehow, thousands of kids managed to grow up just fine without Lego League, 3 different sport and other activities. I'm not saying hold kids out from everything but parents have to say no at some point.

No, we can't do all these activities because there isn't time or money or maybe it's not worthwhile to do.

It's as much of a choice to be overinvolved as it is underinvolved. Can we not find a happy medium?
To the snarks: When I was growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, this "enrichment" thing was all too true, compounded by the introduction of Halo. Where I used to be able to cobble together a group of four for touch football, after Halo and at the dawn of "college resume-building" I had NOBODY to play with. Eventually, I started joining everything, too. Otherwise, I was taking hours-long bike rides every day in the summer, alone, because I was the only one interested in "playing."
Even if we had had the money, I would have shot myself rather than try to live that schedule. But I realize there is some truth the the point that your kids can't just go out and play because there will be no-one to play with. Or, as I found out, the kids that are around are not necessarily a good influence.

But you can devote some time and effort to finding other families whose kids' activities are limited, and to finding activities they can walk to (or for the older ones, take a bus to). Over time, you will find a sort of subculture of families that see things this way. Groups of kids (maybe with one adult somewhere nearby) can be very creative about making fun and even learning life skills.
More government. Yeah, that's the ticket!
To add a wrinkle, my kids are both overweight so if I don't have them in some kind of organized sport everyday, my pediatrician gives me "the look" which says - don't you understand this BMI? Why aren't you doing anything about it? Sports start in 5th grade at my school so it's difficult to find things for my first and second grade kids to do.
Suburban infrastructure and poor planning have a large role to play in this as well. If your only affordable housing option means you have to drive everywhere, well that adds time to *any* activity, from grocery shopping to playing baseball.
You DO NOT have to over schedule your child. The child feels the same stress you do with this over scheduling. You're probably doing him/her more harm than good. AND they learn that life should be like this. What a joke! You just think you HAVE to engage in this really ridiculous behavior. Stop your kvetching.

When I was a kid, I did drama group, multiple art lessons/studio time, sewing, karate and tae kwon do, competitive swimming (which eats up 1.25-2.5 hours/ day), calligraphy, gym time, soccer, tennis, girl scouts, 4-H, book clubs, speech/debate, science club, summer camps... And probably others I'm forgetting. I also had more unstructured time than most of the old timers commenting. Not going to school is great that way.
So many trees, so little forest.

Why is the Class War never mentioned in these posts?

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