Lack of time and busyness are common sources of stress for families. Parents often reporting being on the go all day long. These time pressures likely stem from the value our society puts on achievement and productivity. Increased attention to academics, athletics, and enrichment activities has impacted many families’ lifestyles such that downtime for parents and children alike has become a rarity. In turn, simplifying family life has become a necessity.
To determine how much is too much when it comes to activities and commitments, parents need to ask themselves if valuable experiences are being displaced. Are activities and commitments interfering with experiences that we know children need? Two such experiences are leisure time and family meal time.
Leisure Time Benefits
Leisure time, which is time spent in activities that are freely chosen (i.e., not required), self-rewarding, and inherently enjoyable provides many benefits:
Relaxation and Stress Reduction
Leisure time gives children the opportunity to detach from performance-oriented activities (e.g., school, sports, lessons) that can be stressful. Children often perceive pressure to perform well, meet expectations, and gain the approval of others (e.g., parents, coaches, teachers).
Leisure time allows children to willingly self-select activities which can foster a sense of individuality and perceived control.
Leisure time provides children with opportunities to explore a variety of activities and interests. Without performance pressures, children are more likely to take risks and attempt activities or learn skills that they may not have attempted in a more formal setting.
Through leisure time, children may discover activities that provide them with a sense of purpose and meaning. Performance-oriented and/or structured activities can also provide a sense of purpose and meaning. However, leisure activities can be opportunities for children to find meaning and purpose in self-rewarding activities rather than external
rewards such as grades, status, and trophies.
Family Meal Time
Family meal time provides the following benefits:
Enhanced Family Functioning
Family meals provide opportunities for uninterrupted communication, family connectedness, sharing family values, social support, and social skill development.
Improved Health and Nutrition
Family meals have been associated with better nutrition (e.g., more fruit and vegetable intake, less soda and sugar consumption), fewer unhealthy weight control practices (e.g., skipping meals, diet pill use), and fewer health risk behaviors (e.g., substance use) in adolescents.
Family meals have been linked with emotional well-being in children and adolescents. Females, in particular, report fewer depressive symptoms when family meals are a regular occurrence in their homes.
Suggestions for Simplifying Family Life
Embrace the Benefits of Leisure Activities
While there are numerous benefits to organized activities such as sports teams, music lessons, martial arts classes, social clubs, etc., excessive activities can, and often do, take a toll on parents and children. Parents should strive for a balance between organized, performance-oriented activities and leisure activities.
Plan for Family Meals
Given the many benefits associated with family meal time, parents should not displace family meals. Aim to have at least 4 to 5 family meals a week.
Consider the Message
Consider the implicit messages being sent to children when we overschedule them in multiple activities. We send the message that their academic, sports, enrichment activities are more important than family life, relationships, and self-care. Parents should consider the messages and priorities they want to convey to their children.
Take the Long View
Parents should ask themselves who they want their children to be at the age of 25. That is, take the long view. Do they want or need their children to become academic or sport superstars who derive their self-worth from grades, trophies, or material goods? Or do they want their children to become well-rounded and content adults who derive their self-worth from relationships, interests, and contributions above and beyond grades, trophies, and status? By taking the long view and asking ourselves who we want our children to be in the long run, we may find ourselves re-thinking how many and which activities our children really need to commit to now, thereby simplifying our lives.
Similar to the long-view approach, parents should ask themselves what childhood memories they want their children to carry into adulthood. Do they want their children to remember their early years as being busy, always on the go, pressured, and filled with structured activities? Or do they want their children to remember their early years as involving a blend of structured and carefree activities, but mostly filled with high-quality family time?
In the Long Run
Demanding and excessive life activities do not allow for enough downtime to engage in self-care and recovery from life’s stresses. These stresses, in turn, can take a toll on both parents’ and children’s well-being. For this reason, it is important for families to consider the importance of simplifying family lifestyles.
To simplify family life, parents should make sure that organized activities and commitments are not displacing leisure time and family meal time, two important experiences for children and adolescents. Parents should also take the long view and in doing so, ask what type of person they want their child(ren) to be at the age of 25? What types of childhood memories do they want their child(ren) to have. Then, parents need to ask themselves if their current commitments, activities, and lifestyle (e.g., busy and constantly on the go) will cultivate the skills, well-being, and memories they hope their child(ren) will have as young adults.
Mary Beth Leibham, a professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Loras College (Iowa), a master's degree in developmental psychology from Miami University (Ohio) and a Ph.D. in educational psychology from Indiana University. Her early research interests focused on children's cognitive development, particularly the family and home factors related to young girls’ emerging science interests and science academic motivation. More recently, her research has focused on academic motivation, perfectionism, self-compassion, growth vs. fixed mindsets, and overparenting. Mary Beth teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent development, educational psychology, and exceptional children. Despite her extensive formal training in child development, Mary Beth’s most significant, impactful, and humbling learning experiences have come from her own four children and husband.