Be a Better Parent

12.02.09 Less is More


“This is going to be a really good day,” my 4th-grade daughter said. “Why’s that?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “after school I have nothing to do and I can spend all afternoon making presents.” “Making presents,” means scouring the craft drawer and sewing table for bits and pieces, glue and yarn. Then she’ll hit the recycling bin for cardboard, bottles and jars and combined with a few hours of “nothing to do,” she’ll create perfect Christmas presents. All the while, she’ll dream a few dreams and enjoy her own thoughts. This can go on for hours and won’t require my attention or input at all. As a matter of fact, my input would spoil it for her. Why? Because our family learned long ago that the balance between “stuff to do” (i.e. music lessons, sports, etc) and “nothing to do” is key to having kids who self-entertain, think creatively and enjoy spending time alone. Oh sure, my kids have plenty of stuff to do but they also have plenty of down time to mess around.

Last week, Time magazine published an article called, The Growing Backlash Against Overparenting, about what happens to kids (and parents) whose parents won’t leave them alone. The basic story is that a generation of parents have been so focused on raising a “better kid” they’ve forgotten to let them just be kids. We’ve been over-scheduling children with extracurricular activities in hopes they’ll have the edge to succeed in competitive schools and jobs. We’ve protected them for hardship and given them the best opportunities and safest childhoods we could. We’ve kept them so busy with sports, video games, computer classes, French lessons and tennis, that we’ve failed to teach the value of “nothing to do.” The result is a generation of stressed-out kids who can’t navigate in an unscheduled world where they’re expected to think for themselves, and enjoy their own company. They’ve learned that if they’re not the best, they’re not good enough.

All this safety and overactivity isn’t working out so well. Our kids have been kept so “safe” in antibacterial homes their immune systems are under-stimulated and react to normal dirt with epidemic asthma. We’ve terrified them about walking around in their own neighborhoods. We’ve led them to believe that danger lurks in every corner. We’ve totally freaked our kids out and we did this with the best of intentions.

Those of you expecting a baby soon get to do things better. The beauty of the recession is that better no longer means “more.” Since parents now have to trim activities, toys and extras from their budgets, they’re finding their kids are happier, healthier and better behaved. Parents and children are no longer overscheduled and stressed out. Kids are learning to do things a lot of us older parents did when we were little. We read for hours in our backyards. We rode our bikes in the neighborhood and played with our friends. We did our own homework without help when we had enough time to think things through, problem solve and learn from our mistakes. We weren’t always on the go, go, go. There was time. It was enough.

A recent patient confided she was worried her new baby wouldn’t have the advantages her older children had since her family was now living on a reduced income. She and her husband had a job-and-a-half between them, split the childcare duties and weren’t planning a big Christmas. She also said, “the kids don’t mind at all and I certainly don’t miss all the stress and runaround but….” But what? Who says the best way to raise a baby is by the motto: harder, faster, bigger, better, more, more, more? How about if we raise our kids with this, instead: Enough is enough. It really is. Do your best with what you have and be grateful for that. And leave your kids alone once in a while. They’ll be fine without hyper-vigilance and who knows, you might even get a present out of it.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to and it may be answered in a future blog post.

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