There are many articles about the dangers of over-scheduling children and how a lack of free time to play can be damaging to children. Children need time to run around with their friends and explore the world at their own pace, not be bogged down by hours of homework or an extra-curricular activity every night of the week. On the other hand, getting children involved in sports or music can be beneficial to their academic achievement, social development, and overall health. So how much is too much?
Before moving to France, my husband and I didn't give it much thought. We had signed our oldest up for Sportball when he was three, and although he had begged us to play soccer, he pretty much hated every minute of it. He would stand on the sidelines, Nemo in hand, and refuse to step on the field for the first twenty minutes of the program. We debated whether to force him to participate or not, until we watched the parents of another reluctant child threaten him with everything under the sun, tell him he was behaving like a baby, and then effectively drag him onto the field screaming, where the mother then stood by his side the entire time.
We decided that forcing was not the way to go.
Instead, we let him stand there in peace, until he eventually decided he was ready to participate. He would hand over Nemo for safe-keeping and join the group for the remaining time. We told him after the first practice that he didn't have to continue, and he looked at us like we were crazy. He loved watching the other kids play! My sister had a similar experience with my niece, who passed her entire ballet class with her tutu over her head, but cried when my sister said she could quit if she really didn't like it. Kids are weird.
When we moved to Paris last year, we chose to let the kids get used to their new surroundings before worrying about extra-curriculars. A month or so later, my oldest son asked to join an art class taught by one of the supervisors at the school because his friends were taking it. We said yes, and he still takes art with her today. It turns out he has an aptitude for it that neither my husband nor I have. Who knew? We tried guitar for a while but he eventually decided he wanted to take a break, so we did. Apparently the only guitar teacher he wanted was his Uncle Dave.
Yesterday, we took him to the soccer (ahem: football) orientation for the program that beings in the fall. We've had to get used to the idea that in Paris, most sports programs run September to June, and summer sports are in the form of camps that you register for on a weekly basis. The orientation was a two hour session that allowed the kids to meet the coaches and get an idea of what a practice is like. While the session was taking place, my husband and I chatted up other parents.
And learned a bit about what it means to be a scheduled child in Paris.
One parent's child is enrolled in the following: Soccer, English, Guitar, Judo, and goes on occasional camping trips with a Romanian language group. Another of my son's friends is enrolled in Circus Arts, Multi-Sports, Judo, and a rotating selection of specialty camps over the summer. Another child we know attends Swimming, Art, Arabic, and English. Another takes English, Violin, Piano, Tennis, and Theater. All of these children are 6 or 7 years old.
Our son takes Art. And now Soccer. Our three year old doesn't take anything, except that he stays at the after school program and attends a speech therapy class once a week to help with his French vocabulary and ability to follow instructions in French.
School in France is some pretty tough stuff. Kids are taught cursive starting in Kindergarten. My son is expected to memorize poems and present them to the class, they have tests that are out of over 100 marks, and they have detailed report cards. Starting in Grade One, kids are assigned grades on everything from their homework to their formal tests, and the idea that failing children is bad for their self-esteem is a non-existent concept here. In high school, the final marks are posted publicly for the world to see. In fact, newspapers often post the graduating class's marks on the famous end of high school exam.
For a moment, speaking with these parents on the sidelines of the soccer pitch, I wondered if my son was falling behind. If we shouldn't be enrolling him in an instrument, another sport, and at least another language. That crazy fear that he would somehow be at a disadvantage if we didn't put him in as many extra-curricular activities as possible began to take hold.
Then I began to relax, and reminded myself that my husband and I had already been over this. We strongly believe in free time for kids, just as we strongly believe in the benefits of scheduled activities. Our hope is that we find a balance that works for our children. With our son, the agreement was that he could participate in soccer as long as he also kept up one activity that was not a sport. He decided to continue with art. He already speaks Spanish and English as a by-product of having parents with two different mother tongues. We have made an effort to make friends with people in Paris who speak one of those two languages as well so that our kids will spend some time speaking them on a regular basis.
We travel as much as possible, and make a point of spending Sundays as "family days" where the only requirement is that we do something as a family. I'm not willing to give those days up. My boys are still learning French, although the seven year old pretty much has it down. I consider school in French his additional language class! Summers are spent either at the community center daycare put on by the city, where they take weekly field trips and play a variety of sports, visiting family, or spending a few weeks traveling. The idea of shuttling my kids to nightly activities makes my muscles tense up, which is enough reason to stick to my guns.
Two activities is plenty for now. After all, the three year old will be four soon, and will shortly begin to have his own ideas of how he wants to spend his free time!