There's a good chance that your child is, right now, making his own Harry Potter broomstick out of a stick he found in the backyard...and he might prefer
it to the pricey vibrating plastic version you were thinking of buying him. Childhood experts and those who have studied the stressed-out are weighing
in on the ways we can help our children reclaim simpler pleasures. Here are a few of their suggestions for slowing down and getting a little balance back
into kids' lives:
1. Embrace the joy of goofing around. If you live in an area where you can let your child run amok with his friends outdoors, let him; if you don't, remember
that just hanging with friends and neighbors indoors can be great too. I've recently adopted an open-door policy with the parents and kids in my building:
The result sometimes necessitates that I wear earplugs and swill wine on a Saturday afternoon when the hordes descend, but the chaos and occasional showdowns
("You cheated!" "Did not!"—ah, the dulcet tones of 6-year-old boys) are far preferable to the eerie silence that descends when little kids are locked for
hours in the world of Noggin or Club Penguin.
2. Limit kids to one or two activities per season. For her book
which chronicled the lives of hyper-competitive teens destined for prestigious colleges, Alexandra Robbins interviewed kids of all ages; she found some
as young as 6 who complained of stress, and 8-year-olds who were carrying day planners. "Kids may have lots of energy, but they get as tense as adults
would when they're overscheduled," Robbins says.
Some parents I know are taking the less-is-more idea a step further, at least temporarily. "One semester we took the girls out of everything," says Soledad
O'Brien, an anchor and special correspondent for CNN and mother of four children under 8. With all the various activities of the older girls, "it was getting
insane...and it was hurricane season for me, so I was traveling more than usual. I said, 'Screw it,' and took 'em out of all extracurriculars." O'Brien
then substituted dates with her daughters: Once a week Mom picked up one girl, who got to do whatever she wanted—museum, bookstore, carriage ride in Central
Park, lunch in the CNN cafeteria (a favorite). "One-on-one time is great, especially with four kids," says O'Brien. "And a child walking down the street
telling complete strangers, 'I'm on a date with my mom!' is really sweet."
3. Encourage more human time, less screen and toy time. Our children are spending larger and larger chunks of time with stuff and less time with people.
"Think about it," says Elkind. "Even with something as simple as a car ride...parents used to use car time to talk to their kids, and now the kids are
watching DVDs in the backseat." Elkind also notes that the reason classic toys like Etch A Sketch, Mr. Potato Head, and Play-Doh are still popular is that
they don't direct a child's play; they don't say, "Here's the story. Play with me like this." Instead, these simpler toys allow for more wide-ranging,
creative experience. "A good toy is 90 percent child and only 10 percent toy," notes Linn.
4. Introduce computers with caution. Many childhood experts agree that the interactive quality of computers can be powerfully motivating for kids who are
learning to read and write—and games can be just plain pleasurable, too. But, notes Elkind, computers are finding their ways into tinier and tinier hands.
"There are these little computers and computer games for 6-month-olds now," he says. "Parents who say, 'Well, computers are part of our world' are right.
But to them I say: 'Microwaves are part of our world too, and you wouldn't stick one in the crib of a 6-month-old.'"
5. Reclaim summer. The first week of summer, I took my son Henry up to a lake outside the city and assumed he'd do exactly what I'd done at his age: hunt
around for frogs, stare at the dragonflies. Instead, I got "Boorring"; he couldn't wait to get back home to open his lemonade stand and make some bucks.
Now, this kid has been Alex P. Keaton since the moment he heard the words Commerce Bank; still, I was appalled that he had so little concept of the pleasures
of a lazy summer day. Maybe taking him on a tour of the New York Stock Exchange a few days earlier instead of going to a friend's swimming pool hadn't
been such a hot idea.
And maybe it's time for all of us to stop thinking of summer vacation as an opportunity to burnish a résumé. Children and parents need that hiatus to recharge.
As a bonus, if you relax over the summer, you're going to be rejuvenated in time for back-to-school. Says Julie Bell-Voorhees, "When else are your kids
going to catch lightning bugs and learn to play games like Jailbreak with the neighborhood kids?"
6. Learn to trust your child. This may be the most important parenting rule of all, says Elkind. "Children are self-directed learners—they are naturally
curious—and how they learn is through play." When Henry finally stopped hyperventilating about getting back to the city for his lemonade stand, he teamed
up with another kid at the lake who taught him how to skip rocks. This being Henry, the rock skipping ended in some massive contest over who could find
the flattest rock and skip it the most times...and at some point, betting was involved. But in this simple, time-honored pursuit, they were learning something
about the natural world, something about the physics of water and stone, and something about companionship and cooperation. At least I think they were.
And heck, even if they weren't, I didn't have to listen to my 6-year-old discuss gross versus net for an hour. Now that's a blessing of play.
As for me, well, this much I know: After a year of enrolling my sons in after-school programs to keep them busy, busy, busy, I'll be doing things differently
in the fall. Sure, on a couple of days they will be out and about. And I admit it's sometimes tempting to schedule them away every day: Ah, the peace in
my house until they show up at 6:30!
But recently I talked about a new after-school program with Henry, and he was quiet for a moment. First he asked if I would be playing with him. "No,"
I explained, "you'll be playing with other kids." Then he wanted to know if the program could be done at our house. "No," I said, "it's near school."
"Mama," he said to me finally, "that day is too long. And I am too short."