Last Sunday I left the house three times. Once to go for a run, once to get doughnuts (Sunday tradition after running), and later to buy groceries.
My kids on the other hand, spent the entire day playing, eating, driving me crazy, climbing trees, horsing around, visiting with the neighbor, and baking cookies. The most frequently spoken words that day were, “Let’s pretend…!”
We spent the entire day doing nothing. I didn’t wonder if I should be doing something with them, or taking them somewhere, and it was perfect. I can’t remember the last time this has happened.
Confucius once said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
And don’t we?
Hear me out for a second, and tell me if this sounds at all familiar: I am the one that makes our family’s life complicated. I am the one who thinks that we must do everything, participate in it all, conquer it all, be everything and everywhere.
I am the one who thinks that our daughter and son need to [fill in the blank] or they’ll miss out. I am the one who comes home from work and frantically rushes around barking orders, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, packing lunches, making dinner, AND getting angry that the rest of the family is relaxing, playing, and just being.
All of this begs one simple question: What do they know that I don’t?
What I’ve learned in the second half of my life (you know, those years after 40), is that I complicate things. During my calm moments of clarity, I am able to recognize the need to slow down and just be. I allow myself the room to breathe and recognize that what my children really need is time to play and discover who they are on their own.
Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children. It’s the time during which our children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health.
“The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,” says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. “And without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed,” he says.
It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain’s executive control center. This part of the brain has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans, and solving problems, Pellis says. So play, he adds, is what prepares a young brain for life, love, and even schoolwork.
But to produce this sort of brain development, children need to engage in plenty of so-called “free play.” No coaches, no umpires, no rule books. Simply put, what our children really need from us is permission to do nothing.
Growing up, my brothers and I spent entire days blissfully doing nothing. We were not shuttled back and forth to activities, sports, camps, school PTA skate nights, educational enrichment opportunities, and playgrounds.
My mom did not check her phone (okay, so this was in the days of rotary phones, but stick with me) for the calendar of “what’s happening” for kids this week. The backyard was our playground and the trees our monkey bars. My parents car existed solely to get them to work and we had to make our own fun.
Looking back on this now, it’s so clear to me how my mom was able to gracefully do it all. She worked full-time, raised three kids, and never made it look hard. What I now see is that she did not feel the need to have us do everything for fear of missing out on something. She did not insist on making it complicated.
I have seen far too many parents overextended and stressed out. I often ask myself, why we do this to ourselves? Instead of putting pressure on each other to do more, how about we encourage each other to do less?
When visiting with other parents, resist the urge to only ask the pressure cooker questions like: “What sports/activities does your kid do?” “What program are they in at school?” or “What are you doing to make sure they get into the best college?”
Instead, how about asking this question: “How is your family doing?”
When you stop and think about it, all of this stuff is not about our kids, it’s about us. Maybe it’s time we insist on giving ourselves permission to have a day of nothing.
Say no to the next invitation you get. Sit on the couch when you get home from work, instead of making dinner right away. Accept and embrace the fact that our kids are going to be just fine climbing trees and kicking down ant hills.