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Are Extracurricular Activities Helpful?
This is a continuation to my Saturday post, which was a continuation to my Thursday post! So you may want to scroll down and read those first. But here's the basic problem I'm looking at: do we as parents sign our children up for too many activities, and does that have a toll on our family time? I believe it does, and I laid it out on Saturday that the average family with school aged kids has, at maximum, 19 hours a week of potential quality time. That's not much. And that's before they do any lessons. Take skating for 8 hours a week and you're down to 11. Not a pretty picture.

But let's take this one step further. I believe that with parenting it is so important to keep the long-term goal in mind. We talked on Saturday about what those goals for our children should be. Let's focus today on one specific one, and one very general one. First, the specific: we want our kids to develop fitness habits. After all, one of the reasons that we put our kids in sports lessons is so that they can stay fit! We live in a very sedentary society, and we need to encourage all the exercise we can, right?

I'm not so sure. I took ballet a ton as a child. Two nights a week when I was 13 and 14, one night a week from 6-13. I actually was quite good. And you know what? I can't do any of it now. I took adult ballet lessons when I was 30 for fun, and wrecked my knee because I tried to do the "turn-out" as much as I did at 14, and found my body no longer cooperated. Ballet isn't the type of thing you can just keep doing. It doesn't keep you fit. Sure it keeps you fit then, and it does help your posture (and it taught me to suck my stomach in, which I still do today), but you can't keep it up. There's no natural place "just to do ballet" in your life. So it doesn't encourage long-term fitness.

What about sports? Hockey and soccer are almost the same. Some men are involved in leagues as adults, as are fewer women, but it's not widely done as an adult. So you can't rely on those things to keep you fit. You may love them, but if you're only playing hockey as an adult once a week over the course of four months, it isn't going to cut it.

Skating or gymnastics? Don't even get me started. Those aren't going to keep you fit as an adult, either.

There's really only one sport that I can see that does have the potential to keep you fit, and that would be swimming. (And, of course, track and field, but few children do this as an extracurricular activity.) So you may have your child in some sport for 5-10 hours a week, and that sport will do diddly squat for them when they are adults. It isn't going to encourage fitness. It's simply going to keep them fit right now. There is some benefit to that, of course, and those kids who like being fit are more likely to adopt other fitness activities, but the sport itself won't do much.

If you really want your children to be fit, they need to develop habits that they can continue easily as an adult. And what are such habits? Biking. Walking. Playing soccer and frisbee and touch football with family. Working out at the Y together (if they have kids' programs). Swimming together. Cross-country skiing. Jogging. As kids get older, these are all things you can do with them, which will keep you fit, too. They contribute to family time, they don't take away from it. And they're more likely to meet your goals of raising a child who is healthy than putting that child into hockey 10 hours a week. Even more importantly, if your child is in extracurricular activities multiple nights a week, you won't have time to develop these activities as a family. So they won't get done.

Now let's look at something more general. I believe that children who are most likely to adopt their parents' value systems are those children who most identify with their parents and their family as the primary influence in their lives. They're kids who enjoy their parents, enjoy their family, and want to remain close. Kids who primarily identify with peers do not tend to adopt their parents' value systems, as Judith Harris' book The Nurther Assumption showed.

How, then, do you get kids to identify with the family? You have fun. You hang out. You spend time together. You make the default in their lives "being with the family". So many times kids are in so many activities that their primary relationships aren't even with siblings anymore. And if you stop identifying with your siblings or your parents to such a great extent, it's unlikely that "family" will be considered your first priority.

You can't just have fun on a schedule. You need downtime for that. You need time for people to laugh, and be themselves. You need time for siblings to decide that spending time together is actually worth it. Often kids need to get bored before they will do something together, but if everything is hyper scheduled, they're never bored, and they don't turn to each other.

There's nothing wrong with boredom. It's the birthplace of many a great idea or great game. Kids get bored, so they need to find something to do. That's when they reach out to little, bratty brothers or sisters. That's when they make up games. That's when they use their imagination.

Let's stop giving our kids deliberately to a schedule which denies them so much family time. They may enjoy it at the time, but in the long run, what is the most important goal for your family? Some families may be able to squeeze everything in, and more power to you! But I have seen families who have thought they were doing it well, only to find fifteen years later that their kids weren't following God and weren't overly involved with their families. It's a big risk. It may be one you want to take, because your child is gifted or really wants to do something. Just realize it's a risk. Count the cost first, so that you can be sure that you are doing everything you can to preserve your family life in the time you have left. But I hope most of you may choose just to hang out at home and maybe, occasionally, throw a football around together. I think, in the long run, that may be more valuable.

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At 9:02 AM , Blogger LAURA said…

I know that you are focusing on the goal of teaching our kids to be fit and healthy... but being in sports and other activities can teach a great deal more than just that. I agree with you that family time is important and necessary. Over scheduling is not good. I'm not arguing that point at all. But I was in sports. Sports that I no longer play. But the things that I learned go way beyond fitness.

I learned to show up. On time. Every time. Even when I didn't feel like it. I committed to something and I had to stick with it. I learned to be a part of something that was greater than myself. I was a part of a team and had to think of others. It wasn't just about me. I learned to listen to and respect authority figures other than my parents. I learned to work hard for something I wanted. And I learned that even when I work hard I might not always be the best... but that doesn't mean I am a failure.

I could go on and on. And these lessons stick with me as an adult and greatly affect how I live my life. Being a part of something good outside of my family only reinforced the values that my parents were trying to teach me. So for me... extracurricular activities were more than helpful.


At 9:32 AM , Blogger Christine said…

Laura said basically what I was going to say. My children are not allowed to over schedule. Our family is too large for that, and if they have decided to play a sport, they must follow through and attend practices and games. The team counts on every member. (The concept of "There is no 'I' in team.")
I do not count on sports to teach my children fitness habits, but they do learn the rules of the games. If they were in a brick and mortar school, they would have a gym class. We count sports as gym class.


At 1:13 PM , Blogger Terry @ Breathing Grace said…

Laura and Christie,

I agree that these are potential benefits of extracurricular activities. There are benefits to be gained from almost anything approached with the right attitude and when the parents have the right attitude. Your parents (and mine) had a different attitude than most parents today.

But we can learn these things within our families, too. Especially when the family is a large one. Kids learn to be on time when parents teach them by example. They can learn to care for someone other than themselves within the family better than they ever could anywhere else. There is no "I" in team, it's true. But there is no "me" in family either. But the "me" mentality has infected sports even at the elemnetary level.

Sadly for us this has meant being extraordinarily circumspect in what activities our children can be in and how much time can be spent in the current atmosphere where the parents with their "win at all cost", "my kid is better than yours", and "my kid deserves more playing time" mentality has rubbed off on their kids.

I once heard a preacher say "If temas sports really built character, then NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB athletes should be the most moral and ethically straight people on the planet since most of them have been steeped in team sports since they were very young. The analogy doesn't hold up."

I agree with the preacher.


At 1:29 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

Terry--Wow, that's a great quotation from that pastor! I'm going to remember that.

Christine, I agree that learning the rules of sports is a good idea. And learning to play them is also good! But I think, if I can gather from what you're saying, that you're writing from a homeschooling perspective. I homeschool too, and my kids are in a homeschool sport program where they do soccer, and hockey, and football, and baseball on Friday afternoons from 1-3. I agree that that is a great opportunity for them.

So I'm not against sports per se. What I am against is extracurricular activities that take multiple hours away from family time--especially if kids are in the school system. I think it's different for homeschoolers because the kids are already steeped in the family's value system and they're with the family for many more hours already.

Laura, I would agree that sports can/do teach good values. But like Terry, I would say that these values can also be learned in other ways. For teens, I think the best way is through a part-time job, which also allows them to learn the value of money and allows them to save for college, while also giving them credentials for their resume.

These things can also be learned in the family setting, as Terry said.

I am not saying that having your kids in sports is always bad, or is wrong. I am only saying that I think we give too much credence to the benefits, and not enough of an honest look at the drawbacks. If we figure out what we want our kids to learn, and what we value most, and then work backwards from there, I think far fewer parents would choose sports that ate up too much time from the family.


At 1:33 PM , Blogger Terry @ Breathing Grace said…

Oh, I didn't mean to imply that there are no benefits to team sports or extracurricular activities. I don't think that was Sheila's intent either. However, as i have children in school, I get an up close and personal look at families that virtually live in the car and rarely have dinner together. And it's the normal course of business these days. I think Sheila has seen this, too. It's not good for families. It just isn't.


At 7:45 PM , Blogger The Happy Domestic said…

First of all, I completely agree with your point. Even if, as in some people's cases, the children in their care have a mandated amount of extra-curricular recreation, as in Ministry of Child and Youth Services guidelines. It's a shame families don't have the same amount of downtime together.

I must briefly correct one misperception. Hockey is unequivocally a lifelong sport. At the age of 63 my father-in-law still plays at least twice a week, for at least 8 months of the year. My husband plays twice a week for all but one month of the year, and for that month he plays one day a week and runs with some other guys on one or two other days of the week. While not everyone can play in leagues, pick-up games are always in need of players in every town, accommodating varying schedules. If hockey is a passion, as it is for many Canadian youth (particularly boys), it can certainly be a lifelong pursuit.


At 9:31 PM , Blogger Becky H said…

Just a short note to say Thanks for letting God use you to slap me up beside the head. Now to explain, i feel like the Lord is leading me to homeschool my daughter she is adopted and birthmom followed the crowd and it lead her down a bad path in life. I afraid my daughter is following the crowd and not being a leader. I get scared at times weather or not I will be able to do everything I need to. Then I read your post the other day and there is black and white is the hours we are with our kids. OK God your will not mine. I agree that kids today have too many sports activities its pretty bad when parents take there kids to the ballgame on Sunday but are too tired to get up and go to church. Their value system is not in the right place.


At 12:54 PM , Blogger Erin said…

I really appreciate your thoughts here. I am a homeschooling mom to 5 boys, the oldest of which is almost 9. As they get older, I've been feeling more and more pressure to expose them to various activities and allow them to participate in different things to let him see where they may be gifted and to encourage athletic skills.

However, I am blessed with a very active husband. When he goes running, he takes the oldest two with him for the first mile or two. Then they hop on their bikes and ride along side him as he runs a bit more. He also loves disc golf, so he takes all of them out for a game a few times a week (even our two year old has a pretty mean frisbee toss, now!). Or they just toss discs around in the front yard.

I agree with you completely that it is these types of associations that are going to stick with them long term. Remembering the togetherness they felt with their dad and siblings as they did active things will go along way in instilling a lifestyle of fitness, as well as family togetherness.

Now, I don't necessarily see anything wrong with the occasional outside structured activity. But when each child is going different directions, missing meals together, and picking up bad habits or attitudes from others, that's definitely a time to start questioning the ultimate goal and results from these activities.

Thanks for a great series of posts!


At 7:43 PM , Blogger Herding Grasshoppers said…


I think I heard Voddie Baucham (sp?) say something like that. It sure lays to rest the "sports builds character" claim! I think, more truly, sports reveals character.


We let our boys play in an 8-week soccer league each fall (and sometimes in the spring), and we keep a close eye on the coaches (volunteers) and the attitudes on the team. In fact, one year we pulled out because of coaching.

We have no expectation of our boys going on to be Olympians or pro athletes. They play because it's fun and it's good exercise. They are learning to be gracious winners and gracious losers, to do their best, and to persevere. In our neck of the woods, soccer is probably as popular as hockey is up north :0) There are recreational teams of all ages playing outdoor and/or indoor all year round.

Now, as you said, they may not want to do that as adults, and that's fine. But right now, they're boys and - more than girls - they need an outlet for their boundless energy. Or, I guess I should say, their energy will have an outlet and we parents need to point it in the right direction.

Our kids' games are all the same day and at the same field. Lots of families bring picnics and make a day of it.

So, that's all good. It works for us. But... HSAT, there's no way I would do that year round, or if we had to shuffle kids to different activities/venues.

I'm looking at it from a little different perspective, perhaps. I'm definitely "with you" and agree that we cost/benefit to having our kids in lots of activities isn't good. They lose more than they gain. I would rather go for a hike as a family then sign them all up for a separate activity. However... with three active boys, keeping them really physically active is a sanity saver for ALL of us.



At 10:26 AM , Blogger Cassie said…

i agree - i don't know why parents are so willing to have their kids in so many activities -- that meet every night. i guess it's a "keeping up with the jones' syndrome" - everyone else does it so i should too. kids don't get enough sleep anymore either as a result!

i wouldn't mind one practice a week and one game on sat. but that doesn't exist anymore.
and i think you are right --- when you want your kids to be close to you and come to you (teen years) that will only happen if they form a bond with you in all those years before.


At 10:28 AM , Blogger Cassie said…

and a response to laura:
great post - and that was the case back then --- but it's no longer the reality in today's team events. there are no consequences for not being on time. and parents don't respect the coaches decision and require that their kids do the same.
you probably do. but the majority dont.


At 3:28 PM , Anonymous Kathryn Lang said…

We tried the "organized" sports for several years with our older boys, but the system tries to squeeze too much into too little. Unless a parent is willing to spend money on extra coaching or the child lands on the right team, fundamentals are missed and sportsmanship is almost non-existent.

Our boys started in Scouts last year and the great thing about that is their dad can participate as well (I can also, but the four year old keeps me from going along most of the time for now).

Let me suggest a sport most of you haven't thought about - ballroom dancing. Not only is it great exercise (I read that somewhere recently :D ) but it will teach posture, etiquette and confidence!

Geocaching and letterboxing are also great activities - even the four year old gets into that!


At 4:05 PM , Blogger Teri Lynne Underwood said…

I gather that the point isn't what activities are good or bad but rather that we be intentional about relaying the values and goals of our family into action.

We have one child ... that truly does change everything. Many of the lessons other children learn from sibling relationships, my daughter has learned in classrooms and dance studios.

My husband is a pastor ... his job requires several evenings a month of meetings, practices, etc. Not to mention the times he has to be gone for emergencies and non-regularly scheduled events.

Learning to communicate to our daughter the values we have as a family becomes more difficult each year as she gets older and is more aware of the world around her. This year we made the unheard-of decision to cut back on dance classes. Not because we couldn't afford it, not because she didn't want to take them ... the reason was simply, it was too much. We didn't ask her if she minded, we didn't even ask which class she wanted to drop. We decided and then we told her. Shockingly, she said (at age 9!), "I'm glad. It was too much."

Children benefit from so many experiences ... inside & outside the home ... the problem I see, is that so often, a family's time is so tightly scheduled that there is no time for spontaneous serving or fun or just doing nothing.

This year, we adopted five "guiding values" for our family ... every single thing we do was measured against that list ... if it didn't fall into at least one, it was eliminated. Good things, things we love, things we've always done ... no longer apart of our family's life. We made the choice for BEST over good ... and it's literally changed everything!

Our home is more peaceful, more pleasant, more fun. We have a full calendar ... but it's full of the things that matter to us, the things that we believe God is calling us to do ... and part of that full calendar is white space ... waiting to be filled with a walk on the beach or a family bike ride, with making brownies for a neighbor or inviting friends over for a Wii tournament. And some of that white space is destined to be for family naps and movie nights.

Great post, Sheila! You really encourage me to be faithful to the way I believe God is leading us to "manage" our family. It's rare to hear a voice like yours ... even in Christian circles.

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Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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