Family Life, motherhood, Parenting

A lightly active childhood

June 7, 2016

This week marked my first official foray into the world of “activities.” My big boys, ages 4 and 5.5, are in a semi-private swim class together with another little girl, and they are head over heels for their instructor, Mr. Bobby. He teaches them how to “make pizza,” tricking them into proper breast stroke positioning by spreading the sauce on pool’s surface. I sit perched in the shade – or sun, as I will sorely regret in the morning – and glance at my phone and the book I brought, but mostly I watch them, bobbing up and down, and swimming – honest to goodness swimming – after only 2 short mornings in the pool.

It helps that the section they swim in is only 2.5 feet deep, their patient instructor leading them deeper and deeper until they hardly realize their feet are off the ground, they’re buoyant, and their little doggy paddles are effective.

As we leave the pool area and head for the car, my 4 year old, twice in a row, has looked up at me with shining eyes and uttered a hearty and heartfelt “thank you, mama, for taking us to this pool!” And I think to myself, how sweet is this kid for thanking me so specifically? 

He’s a good boy, but it’s more than that. He also has delightfully low expectations. And not by accident. I’ve long admired, from afar, the idea  of children’s activities, but I’ve hesitated to pull the trigger on anything until this summer. Mostly because I’ve either been too pregnant or too recently-delivered to think about loading up the van for a commute to fun when there’s a perfectly good backyard (or balcony, as it once was) right outside the door, and here’s a cup of ice water and a bowl of grapes, have fuuuuuuun!

I’m the anti activity mom.

Not because I don’t think my kids are capable of athletic greatness (though some are looking more likely than others to sit the pep band bench) or because we can’t afford to do a single thing extra aside from feed and clothe them (though, ahem, the produce bill alone this summer… Man.) but because I question the value – to me, to them, and to their sibling relationships – of doing all the things. And definitely of doing all the things at once.

As I sat in the sun, squinting at my burgeoning Olympians and trading small talk with my neighborhood mom friends (to whom I am a strange and confusing puzzle. 4 kids! And you’re not that big! And you don’t seem crazy!), they started to launch into their litany of summer happenings: swim lessons – not just one session, but back to back sessions, all.summer.long. From 9 am till 11. Different siblings in different class times – museum learnings camps, science camp, t-ball, soccer, vacation Bible school….I dumbly wondered aloud how quickly the swim lessons would “catch” for my boys, meaning, how soon could we expect to go to the pool and have them be swimming on their own? Blank stares and then giggles. One mom pointed to her 6-year-old and said she’d been in year round lessons since age 2.

As they compared notes, the frenzy of their competing schedules increasing as June melted into July and then August, I realized that I’d benched myself from this mom game entirely, almost without knowing it.

And I’m fine with it.

I do not envy the schedule juggling, the phone calls, the booking out months-in-advance. We have enough of that going on already with doctor’s appointments, dentist visits, and school registration deadlines. To add leisure activities to that when my kids can tumble around it the backyard with a bucket of Legos and the hose seems, to my already heavily loaded brain, sheer insanity.

This is not a critical evaluation of parents who choose activities for their children, or some kind of judgment on when and whether your little ballerina gets her tutu. For me, personally, I’ve seen rich fruit in allowing our little brood space to explore, to be together, and quite frankly, to be bored together. And it helps the baby get a nap in, too.

Right now our backyard looks a bit like one of those hipster “adventure playgrounds” that were sweeping Europe a few years back. You know, burning tires, real wood and tools to assemble into forts, rotting rope swings into mud puddles.

Something along those lines.

We lost a section of our fence to a tragic Xcel Energy repair last spring, and the orange mesh that sprang up in the place of wooden slats allows ample espionage oportiunites for the kids to creep on Mr. Lino next door while he mows his lawn and answers endless questions about his compost pile and snow blower. The blown-out boxspring frame that somehow made it’s way from the trash pile into the corner of the yard, now riddled with spy holes and water stains, makes an excellent fort and hiding place. The tiny vegetable garden may or may not produce actual carrots and cucumbers at the end of the summer, but it’s tiny green shoots are fodder for speculation and excitement, creeping incrementally higher each morning.

And that’s all before a single bug has been caught, a rabbit spotted, or a popsicle consumed.

I do have to engage in a fair share of “get back outside/go find something to do/use your imagination” directives, but I refuse to cave into the mental guilt that I should somehow be entertaining them for 12 hours a day, or that the tv should.

We don’t have to go anywhere for our kids to be happy. In fact, I want to make the argument that there is happiness to be had particularly in the staying-at-home, the little years spent mostly hidden, popping out here and there for a trip to the library, to the grocery store, to the museum or zoo, or even to another country.

But those forays into the larger world are the exceptions to our little rule of home life. They’re not the stuff everyday is made of.

I know I’m a young and inexperienced mom still, and that the adolescent years may well be filled with swim meets and baseball games and football practices. But I hope I remember that I have the power to make the schedule, and it needn’t be vise versa.

I’m not judging my super active mom friends. But I do wish you could catch your breath and sit with me for a coffee while we watch our kids destroy my lawn with snow shovels and screwdrivers. Motherhood is hard enough on it’s own, and even if you don’t sign up for the recital this year, I’m pretty sure you’re still killing it. Let yourself off the hook.

Because these kids? They’re pretty content with a box of chalk and a soccer ball in the driveway, no uniforms required.

lightly active

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21 Comments

  • Reply Beth June 7, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    Awesome! I am similar to you, even with older kids. I can’t handle constantly being busy. My kids are in 4H, we’ve done some swim lessons, soccer, and art lessons, (at different times), and have numerous play dates. I just can’t run all the time, and think the endless activities breed discontent. I think we’re trying too ha

  • Reply Cami June 7, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    I’m totally in your camp right now. It is hard to keep a 4 year old and 3 year old (boys) busy all day. They don’t even leave for preschool because we’ve done that at home and will homeschool kindergarten in the fall for my oldest. But he in particular has many, many aspirations. So many interests and gifts already at just 4! So I’m becoming more motivated to start swim lessons soon. I figure we need the water safety aspect of it and to start practicing and learning a skill. Plus my 3 year old seems to love water so we’ll see if he likes following directions in it too. Our 1 yr old (girl) already wants to keep up with the boys so I’m not sure how long we’ll be able to delay activities for her. At least for now she’s mostly into her baby doll, dancing, singing, and just discovered this week… hiking Garden of the Gods. On her own two little feet. Because everyone else was so why shouldn’t she? Clearly she has no idea she’s a mere 17 lb baby. Anyway, today I played with all three kids on my bed. It’s a rare treat (my one place I’d rather they not destroy!) but they love it up there! We were silly and everyone was giggling and cuddling and full of smiles. These at home “activities” are worthwhile and I know will remain in their memories.

  • Reply Katy J. June 7, 2016 at 7:31 pm

    Thank you for this post! I was starting to feel like there was something wrong with me for not wanting to peddle my almost 5 and almost 3-year-olds all around town to do all the things at all the places. I’m very much like you (a female INTJ too, in fact) in that I would rather my kiddos overcome boredom by getting their hands dirty together in the yard. I am finding that being a “non-active mom” is becoming more and more isolating, and lately I have been questioning whether I am doing the right thing by opting out of the constant activities (and avoiding the race to sign up for/get spots in the activities). You have reassured me that “I am killing it” regardless, and that it is, in fact, OK to let myself off the hook. It’s a relief to know I am not alone!

    • Reply Alyssa June 7, 2016 at 8:17 pm

      I’m right there with you, INTJ and all. We have 5 little kids (10mo – 7yrs) and the only thing we do (for now) is swim in the summer for the older three and homeschool park days. I was starting to feel the pressure to “do all the things” like my neighbors but I just can’t fathom having to be chauffer all the time and not being able to enjoy the (relatively) peaceful day to day around our home not to mention taking away from the fun sibling bonding and …ahem… “problem solving” (aka fight and make up) time the kids enjoy right now. Thanks Jenny for making the rest of us feel normal again!

  • Reply Lacey June 7, 2016 at 8:47 pm

    YES. My kids are still babies (oldest is 2 and #3 is due in October), but the pressure to do all the things is there! I do like to get out of the house and do at least one thing a day (or else mama goes stir crazy), but I do not like feeling like I HAVE to. It’s the obligation I begrudge. If we’re having a crazy day and my children are melting by 9 am, or mama is too tired, we don’t go. Simple as that. Some may consider it flaky, but I like to think it’s just smart mommying 🙂

  • Reply Micaela June 7, 2016 at 8:56 pm

    My kids are a little older than yours, but I still occasionally needed to be reminded that we don’t have to do all the things. It’s funny, because when we lived in Korea we lived mostly a “hidden” life: few activities and alots and lots of family time. As soon as we got home I went a little nuts in the opposite direction. I’ve now found a pretty good middle ground for us, but I still appreciate postpartum times (like now) where I *really* slow down.

  • Reply Jen @ Into Your Will June 7, 2016 at 9:11 pm

    Whoooooleheartedly agree. I have friends who are still finishing up homeschooling or just finished public schooling and the summer activities have already started so they’re all stressed and I just want to say, you know all of that isn’t required, right?? I’m perfectly content staying home with my newly 4-year old and almost 2-year old. I mean, I’m also 35 weeks pregnant…but I’m fairly certain I’d feel the same way if I wasn’t pregnant. I know these years with all littles at home won’t last forever, so I’m kind of just soaking it up while I can. (Temperament is probably a big factor in this whole topic! #introvertsunite)

  • Reply jeanette June 7, 2016 at 10:42 pm

    Anti-activity mom status is not a bad thing, you know! So don’t feel guilty at all. There are pros and cons to activities. When they are little, they don’t necessarily need activities. They need open-ended opportunities to explore and discover, whether in the home, in the yard, at a park or beach, on a hike, etc. Unstructured time also helps kids to be more creative.

    When kids have their lives too scheduled, they have a harder time in lots of ways. Like how to use their own time without someone else deciding how to spend their time. I remember my sister-in-law telling me one day how thankful her son was when he found out one day that they didn’t have to go anywhere, but “got to” stay home. It’s all about balance.

    Swimming is really a valuable skill to learn to keep kids from drowning, but they don’t have to train for the Olympics (unless they show that special ability). Don’t worry about what other moms do. Each parent has their own aspirations for their children and their own unique family style.

    If a child has a real talent, like music, lessons are good to develop that talent, but if they hate music, the worse thing you can do is put them in lessons because it is “good for them” like green beans or something! If a young child is an avid sports lover, organized sports are good when they are school aged and can really develop skills, but it also takes time commitment for the whole family.

    My dad was a Little League team manager, so there were practices and games for each of my brothers and my father (who rushed there after getting off of work), and my mom and I would often go watch their games. So, it can be a family affair sometimes, but it just depends upon what the activity is and how much time you devote to being part of it. It can be too demanding or just a regular part of family life, depending upon how one approaches these things.

    Unless you homeschool, once your kids are school aged and involved in being gone from home for the good part of the day, after school activities plus homework multiplied by the number of children can totally take away from family time. I remember when the soccer league became over demanding of our kids lives, so we quit. There were just so many other better ways to be spending our time together.

  • Reply Nancy June 8, 2016 at 3:44 am

    Coincidentally, I just read a piece called “If a 70s mom had a blog,” and it was mostly about kids being left to their own devices outside to play. We don’t agree on a lot but I do agree with you on this. My kids are 8, 6, and 2.5. I limit each kid to one activity because the older two want to do a lot (the baby and I do a music class together). But even one activity per kid still entails a lot of driving and schedule coordinating. I can’t imagine doing more! So, good for you.

    • Reply Jenny Uebbing June 8, 2016 at 8:59 am

      hahaha, that’s awesome. Now if only I could drop all my insane millennial food neurosis and just throw them spam and wonder bread and Dr. Pepper and American cheese for lunch, I’d be set.

      • Reply Nancy June 8, 2016 at 1:21 pm

        My food bill would be a lot cheaper without those organic grapes and free range chicken!!

  • Reply Ashley Anderson June 8, 2016 at 7:07 am

    I one million percent agree. I grew up with massive swaths of “nothing” time (usually outside) all the way up into my adolescence. I’m a huge believer in kids actually needing to be bored. “You’re bored? Awesome! Now you get to be creative!” It takes a little while sometime, but they figure it out. Part of our backyard is also a assortment of the most random objects. I give them a corner they can make something of & even though some moms would keep it tidy and pretty and put away, I’m happy they’ve got some weird mess over there and I usually just turn a blind eye and let them take charge in their little space.

    Have you ever read Last Child in the Woods? I highly recommend.

  • Reply Sally V June 8, 2016 at 7:33 am

    I don’t think you will have to completely give it up, depending on how things are run. In my small town, baseball starts slow and easy–with practice in May and games in June until about 3rd or 4th grade. After that, Polly bar the door! I however, am like you. My three boys (10-15) are in Boy Scouts. None of them choose to play baseball. They all take swim lessons because I want them to be safe around water. Maybe 2 sessions each summer. (Man that’s hard to go back and forth though!) My daughter (7) has ventured into softball this summer. IF they really want to try a sport, okay. But **I** do not demand, expect or push to sports, summer camps (except Boy Scouts which is where they earn many achievements and is part of the “right of passage” of a scout) or other organized activities. My eldest is now in High school and does sports and Band (they can do both-sports & The Band Bench!), so he does have some obligations throughout the summer, but state regulations limit the coaches on how much can be required. It may hurt his opportunities with some coaches, but so be it. If they will go on to college or pro sports, God will make it happen–not an arrogant coach. I work in the schools as well, so we ALL relax and slow down over the summer. Of course, they still whine that I make them do too much!!!! Those darn chores…..

  • Reply Heather June 8, 2016 at 10:26 am

    Thanks Jenny! This is how I aspire to be. First-time mama to only a wee 7-month old, but I am already “exhausted” just watching some of my mom friends constantly on the go. This gives me courage to live a simpler life. At least, as you said it, while she’s (hopefully, eventually, “they’re”) little and don’t know the difference! 🙂

  • Reply Katie June 8, 2016 at 11:06 am

    I completely agree. Very few activities here. My older two are going to Totus Tuus this year at my moms church. They are loving it! We might delay swim lessons until fall so we can completely have a care free summer. My girls have been making a bucket list for summer. It includes different parks, activities at home and a big trip to the zoo. They don’t even realize that other kids are “doing” other activities. They were so excited last year when we completed the list.
    I wish more moms were available for care free coffees!

  • Reply Melissa June 8, 2016 at 1:26 pm

    Yeah…our oldest is four and we haven’t even thought about swim lessons. Whoops?? But my husband was on the swim team so that’s his domain. I am a dog paddler myself :/

  • Reply Amelia June 8, 2016 at 7:37 pm

    In defense of the “actvities moms” some of us thrive on the routine and being out and having structure to our days. I’m more stressed by the look of an empty calendar than I am by a full one. The thought of endless days on end with nothing planned makes me depressed. I literally get depressed/anxious if I go too many days without leaving the house.

    We don’t do tons of activities or anything, but I am much happier if I have something planned most days of the week.

    I have kids that are older than yours, and they definitely do thrive on having some regularly scheduled activities. Not a ton, but enough to provide some structure and routine to our days.

    • Reply Jenny Uebbing June 9, 2016 at 6:09 am

      Oh I totally get that. We thrive on a little structure too, and getting out of the house every day at least once. But for sure I’m an introvert, so I’m sure that played into the panic of hearing these moms outline their schedules with multiple lessons/camps/sports practices every day for multiple children, all summer long. I think there must be a healthy balance between a psuedo-hermitage and your phone calendar looking like you’re running a summer camp.

    • Reply Judith June 10, 2016 at 7:51 pm

      I’m like you, Amelia. I don’t like to have TOO much time at home because I know it will be too easy for the kids to end up on screens for hours on end (especially if I’m trying to get stuff done and don’t monitor too carefully).

      I wonder if it’s a little bit of an introvert/extrovert thing. I like scheduling playdates & reunions with other families we don’t see very often during the school year so I can get my mom socializing in. I especially like to mooch off of friends who have neighborhood pools since we don’t have a pool membership anywhere. 🙂

      I think it depends on the ages of your kids, too. Mine are 10, 7, and almost 4. There aren’t as many reasons or opportunities to schedule activities for younger kids anyway. I like what Jeanette said above about balance and not worrying about what other moms do because each family is different. For us, I figure if there are about 10 weeks of summer, I schedule 2 or 3 camp weeks (they go to a Cub Scout day camp one week which has awesome good old-fashioned activities like leathercrafting, obstacle courses, canoeing, etc., and a half day choir camp another week, and sometimes VBS or something else). We have a week or so of family vacation, so that is 3 or 4 scheduled weeks, still leaving 6 or 7 weeks unscheduled. We end up filling those in with playdates, the library summer reading program, zoo & museum trips, and some truly unstructured time of course. But it seems like a good balance for us.

  • Reply Desiree June 9, 2016 at 7:01 am

    Love this! I realized recently that I have pretty much unwittingly given my kids more of a 70’s childhood than a 2010’s one. (Plus screens. 😉 Though as they get older, it gets harder and I find myself doing more taxiing than I love.

  • Reply Diana June 10, 2016 at 6:28 am

    I LOVE this. We just have a 3 year old who, in my opinion, is too young to be involved in any organized activities but I also have no plans for anything as he grows either. I really like having few weekly commitments and an open schedule. I definitely don’t entertain him every hour of the day and love that he’s got quite the imagination from doing it himself. So nice to hear other parents who feel similarly!!

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