Thoughtful Parenting: Free time ultimate holiday gift

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Parenting today often feels like a frantic race in which we forever are a few steps behind. Chances are, if you are feeling the stress of living in our 24/7 world, your kids are feeling it, too. My mother often comments on how different life is for families today, and it’s not just her perception: Life is different. 

According to a national study released by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, kids today have half as much free time as they did 30 years ago.

While some may conclude that this lack of free time leads to a more productive child, from a brain development standpoint, it is quite the opposite. When kids engage in unstructured play, they stimulate the areas of their brain responsible for problem solving, critical thinking, decision making and creative thinking. It is during empty hours that kids learn to become self-reliant and responsible — critical life skills.

What’s more, over-scheduled kids tend to be anxious, angry and burn out on their favorite organized activities before age 13. They often display a range of symptoms from headaches and stomachaches to temper tantrums, an inability to concentrate in school and sleeping problems.

More importantly, by cramming activities into a child’s schedule, we deprive them of something very special: the gift of just being a kid.

In this multitasking world, in which the push to do more and do it faster always is on our minds, it is no surprise that the effects have trickled down to child rearing. We get caught up in the thought that if we want our kids to be successful, learning sooner is better. In fact, there is a wealth of information that proves the opposite. Children need time to recharge their batteries and process what they’ve learned. Free time allows them to explore, to be scientists, discoverers, creators and innovators. They do that when they build snow forts, turn stairwells into cardboard slides or find the remarkable in the mundane.

As parents, we do have a choice. We can help them be creative problem solvers, to be energized by their own imaginations and curiosity, and to be happy kids. That’s where doing nothing comes in.

Stop the frenzy

This media-savvy generation is being raised to believe that life is a nonstop roller coaster of activities and that if every moment isn’t filled, then something is wrong. This is a great time of year to reflect on your family priorities and determine whether they are aligned with the life you want to create.

■ Be a role model. You are your child’s best teacher. If your kids see that you value unstructured time, they will, too. Carve out time to turn off your cellphone, stop checking your email and just hang out, without lamenting that you should be doing something.

■ Unplan. If your child seems tired or unable to concentrate in school or on homework or has frequent meltdowns or difficulty sleeping, he or she might be on overload. In a blank calendar, fill in a typical week in your child’s life, listing each activity and when it’s scheduled. If your child is younger than 10, I recommend two afternoons a week and one weekend day for unstructured activities.

■ Schedule unstructured family time. Keep it sacred. Try to have one day a week that has nothing on the calendar. Make a big dinner, take care of the house or rent a movie and eat popcorn. Give the entire family a day to recharge.

■ Tune out “I’m bored!” cries. Despite your efforts, it will happen, and it doesn’t mean you’re not being a good parent. Instead of jumping in to offer entertainment, make a few suggestions, be strong and let your children figure it out on their own.

■ Not in our house. It is easy to get sucked into your child’s argument that everyone else in his or her class has an iPhone. Be intentional about the gifts you give this holiday season. Do they inspire creativity, problem solving and unstructured play? If they require a chord or a charger, chances are they do not. 

Kristen Race, Ph.D., is the founder of Mindful Life, an organization dedicated to providing mindful solutions to help families become more resilient to the stress in their lives. She has been a member of the First Impressions executive committee for the past five years.

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