Rat race. We are rats in a rat race. When I think of rats racing through mazes, I don’t imagine them smiling. Or laughing. Or playing. Or loving. Or being joyful. When we run too aggressively in the rat race, we sometimes inadvertently drag our kids into the madness with us, and they no longer have the ability or freedom to just be kids. We get one shot at childhood, only one chance to have the freedom and joy that is part of the privilege of being a child, one shot to learn how to navigate in this world, and only one shot to grow up into who we are going to become.
Some of us can get so consumed with just getting through the day that we forget about the importance of being engaged and present for our kids, and we forget about the importance of letting our children act like children. At the end of a long day, we find solace in our computers or televisions and our kids also finds solace in their own electronic gadgets but these comforts do not equate to happiness, in fact the exact opposite is true.
Studies show that electronic use is detrimental to the development of children and can affect how they think and behave in our ever crazy world. The reality is – kids need as much opportunity as possible to just be kids. Kids need to act like who they are – children, not little adults capable of running the rat race; because the truth is, adults aren’t cut out for the rat race either. More so, our typical adult coping mechanisms often used to combat the daily stressors (alcohol, junk food, electronics) are not the best ways to unwind – and modeling these coping mechanisms for our children is inadequate as compared to a more natural approach of finding solace in quality, happy, and playful family time.
For our family, we started to notice that the grind of life was getting in the way of our happiness factor and this was really starting to affect our children. Most of you know that 4 years ago we decided to homeschool our boys. This was the beginning of an awakening for me and as our lives became more unstructured, we all became happier. Homeschooling was the first step for us to let our kids really be kids. Our switch to a more unstructured environment carried with it a great ability for my children to express and behave like children and this newfound way of living is a beautiful, sometimes difficult, wonderful and inspiring thing.
When kids are at traditional schools they are expected to hold it together. Kids must adhere or be in “trouble”. They must sit still, always focus, line up, follow along, etc. At home, my boys can use their bodies as they learn, they can compete when they want to or work together when that feels good to them. They can eat when they are hungry, cry when they are sad, and dance and sing at the top of their lungs even while they learn. Being childlike is what children are supposed to be and giving my boys the freedom to do that is priceless. I understand completely that homeschooling is not an option for everyone, and for us it just so happened that is was the avenue to open my eyes to the importance of letting kids be kids, and coming to this realization and acting on it is possible for everyone, homeschooled or not.
So, what’s the secret? How do you play more and stress less, how do you teach your kids to be kids again? It takes a bit of effort to change routine and a willingness on the part of the parents to let go of some of the structure and to step out of the rat race in order to be more like a kid yourself. The end result will be better health and more happiness for the entire family!
Here’s some strategies we use to give our kids the opportunity to live their lives like kids should.
1. We limit electronic time. It’s not easy to do this because the pressure is real. Every kids has a tablet or a phone or a gizmo or a gadget that provides entertainment of some sort. I get it. It’s easy to plug in and be occupied and it’s easy for your kids to do the same but kids are losing the opportunity to navigate the world around them, to imagine, to use their bodies, to use their brains in a real, organic, mish-mash sort of way, and they lose the ability to interact with their own thoughts or the actions and thoughts of others. Our boys are allowed one hour on the weekend to play their favorite game (Minecraft) on our computer and their tablets are kept for occasions such as travel or in limited amounts of time if we are at the office together and they have already exhausted themselves with play and even then it’s very limited. All in all, our kids spend maybe 3 entire hours a week “plugged in.” How do we enforce this rule? We just DO. We are the parents and we purchased the electronics, and therefore, we make the rules. When I first laid down the law, yes there was complaining, but as soon as the boys learned that I was sticking to my guns, they stopped asking and if they DO ask, I don’t give in and it’s amazing how quickly they figure out what to do instead! I notice without a doubt how much happier my kids are with reduced electronics. They just are. They are more relaxed, less spastic, easier to reason with, and complain less about being “bored.”
2. We understand that parenting is not a spectator sport. When you are on the sidelines, you miss all the plays, when you get in there and engage in the sport of life, you understand all the components and it’s WAY more fun than waiting in the wings. It also takes a great deal more energy but when you are in the mix with your kids, the rewards are greater than the risks, and those risks are often physical ones in my home, when it comes to the kind of play that my boys like to engage in. I often have bruised knees and even an occasional knot on my head thanks to the wrestling, running, climbing, crazy antics that my boys like to engage in but it’s FUN and I can be a kid again too and that’s so great for all of us. I have learned what real play feels like and I love it. When I’m tired or stressed or frustrated, sometimes I have to force myself to play, but I always feel better after, just like I feel after a good workout in the gym. Our bodies crave play and having kids is the best excuse to engage in this awesome necessity.
3. We let our kids be mad when they are mad and sad when they are sad. My one rule when it comes to the mad part is that they need to be respectful to us and each other but getting mad is part of the fabric of who kids are. My boys are little hunters, trying to work their way up to the top of the tribe, and sometimes that’s really stinking hard and they need to blow off steam. Rowan is the “king of mad” – but most people never see that side of him except for John and I because he feels safe enough with us to be really mad when he has the need to so be. Rowan can yell and scream and punch pillows and cry, and in true boy fashion, he’s over his rage as quickly as it begins and then he’s back to his happy awesome self. Because he’s allowed to be emotional, and act like a 7 year old, when he’s out in the “real world” he doesn’t behave in a crazy, out of control fashion. When he’s at gymnastics practice I watch him listen attentively and follow instructions and stay focused. When he’s with friends or relatives, he can hold it together pretty well if things get a big rough, and I attribute that to the controlled freedom he has at home to express himself. Letting your kids feel all the feels when they are with YOU in a safe manner and within parameters and boundaries of respect, it really helps your kids function better when it counts.
4. We allow exploration and there are no “rules” in our house when it comes to jumping on things or climbing on things or using things – our rules are about being kind and helping out. That’s it. My kids can make messes, they can create and explore, they can cook with me or on their own, they can get dirty or wet or usually both, they can fall down and get hurt and learn consequences and limits of what they are or are not capable of doing. No, we don’t allow them to jump on things or climb on things at other’s homes, and they understand that, but at our home, I want them to feel at home, and not like they live in a museum. I love watching Rowan squat on the counter while he figures out a math problem or watching Jaden sing out spelling words. I love seeing them calmly coloring or writing one minute and then sword fighting ferociously the next and we can let them do this because they know it’s ok and they are safe with us to just be kids.
5. We offer choices within boundaries and we are ok with healthy competition. Our kids are not allowed to just run wild but they are allowed to be free to make choices and therefore they are free to make mistakes and they are free to measure their abilities with healthy competition. I’m not a fan of every kid always winning or every kid always getting a prize. This is not how the real world works. We allow healthy competition and now that my kids are a bit older, at 7 and 11, they can understand that you sometimes have to lose graciously and its ok to win but win just as graciously. We are working on being a family “team” which is sometimes hard with two boys who are very competitive but even with their age gap, they realize that they each have their own strengths and their own weaknesses, and therefore their own uniqueness. We never, ever, compare our kids. If one can’t do something better than the other, that’s ok, they can see that for themselves, so instead we encourage our boys to try whatever it is, even if it’s not their strong suit, and than we nurture what they are good at and more importantly, what they are passionate about. Thus, they learn what its like to be proud of what they are good at and to try harder at what they are not as good at but to not feel bad about their weaknesses but with a healthy realization that sometimes life offers disappointment and it’s how you handle the disappointment is what matters. (Insert Rowan getting mad here, and then getting over it just as quickly because he knows he is free to feel those feelings!)
6. We love them with a great and crazy passion and they know it. This is the biggest one. Kids need to know they are loved and therefore, they are free to be kids because they feel safe. Safety is love and love is safety and even when they roll their eyes at me, I give my kids hugs, and tell them I love them. Kids can feel free to be kids when they know they are safe and when they know they are loved; no matter what.
7. We try not to hover. When I was a kid I was outside all the time, running wild, riding horses, exploring and learning simply while living. We let our kids also learn by living without always intervening. I try to be as involved as possible while letting my boys also learn and grow and explore without always being there to correct, or intervene or divert. We try to listen when our kids are talking to us or to others without interrupting and correcting or changing what they are talking about. We try to let them make mistakes and then talk about the consequences instead of stopping the mistakes before they happen.
8. We let them do less. Kids do not need to be in every single structured activity created by man. Kids need to play a lot and be with their families a lot and especially kids who do go to school, when they are then shuttle to hours of lessons or practices or organized functions and sports every single day of the week, they really miss out on the joy of just being a kid. We have our entire lives to “do” stuff. Our entire lives to be structured, but only a few precious years to be together as a family, feeling fee to explore what we love and what brings us joy and what gives us that sense of accomplishment and that feeling of true passion. We let our kids figure out what they are interested in and encourage them to try many different things and when something clicks and the want to stick with it, we nurture that interest. Through this process, Rowan has fallen in love with gymnastics and Jaden with Kenpo Karate and drumming and they genuinely want to do these things but we don’t try to over schedule their little lives so that they have plenty of time to just. be. kids.
The moral of the story, raising happy healthy kids is not easy, especially in todays environment and with todays pressures of over scheduling and keeping up with the Joneses. Remember, if it doesn’t feel right for your family, if you notice that your happiness level is not where you want it to be, or that your kids seem stressed out way more than they seem joyful, it might be as simple as playing more and structuring less and letting your kids just be who they are and trusting that your love and acceptance and guidance will help them turn into the incredible and secure grownups we know they can someday be.