As winter becomes spring in an ooze of mud and slush, it’s that time of year again: time to sign up the kids for spring (and summer) activities. And signing up means gathering information, pre-planning, and lining up – three things that exhaust me just thinking about them.
I’ve written before that I’m grateful to live in a place with limited options for children’s activities; lack of choice helps keep the overwhelm at bay. On the other hand, lack of choice also means competition for limited resources. I’m still shaking from my first attempt to register a child for the Middlebury Parks & Recreation gymnastics program. Gymnastics registration is held at the town gym on one evening only, on a first-come, first-served basis. Thinking, “No problem, we live in a small town,” I arrived promptly at the registration start time.
According to the 2000 census, there are about 1,400 people under the age of 18 in our town. When I arrived at the town gym, the parents of all of them were already in line ahead of me.
I put my daughter on the waiting list and drove home thinking, I’ve failed as a parent.
This wasn’t the first time I’d hit that particular parenting low. I blame one of my worst mothering moments to date on ballet class. Back when our family lived in California, our oldest daughter, then 3 years old, had the opportunity to participate in a ballet class at a lovely little dance school. This daughter had been asking to take ballet for some time, and was elated to put on her leotard and head off to the first class.
The first class was wonderful: I dropped off my daughter with no fuss, spent 30 carefree minutes with her younger sister, and picked up a happy little ballerina at the end of class.
Then came the second class. One minute after we walked in the door, as I prepared to say goodbye, my daughter pitched a screaming, clinging, flailing tantrum extraordinaire. I tried reasoning. I tried bargaining. I tried force. But, as I also had a 1-year-old in tow and was 9 months pregnant at the time, I lost the battle. Back into the car we went.
On that drive home, I was so furious with my daughter that it scared me. Then I started crying. Both reactions were totally illogical; it was just a ballet class!
But here’s what I knew in that moment: I had failed as a parent. My daughter either had some deep-rooted anxiety disorder and would grow up afraid to leave the house, or else she was a quitter who’d never follow through with anything.
What is it about our kids’ activities that brings out the worst in parents, that sends us straight to the guilt pit?
Maybe I’m alone in this, but based on conversations with other parents, I think guilt is possibly the most prevalent parental emotion. We’re guilty about getting (and keeping) our kids in the right activities; we’re guilty about whether we spend enough time with them, provide enough enrichment, send them to the right schools, and let them watch too many “Dora the Explorer” DVDs. We’re so quick to judge ourselves parental failures.
A recent conversation with my oldest daughter (she of the Ballet Meltdown) helped to change my perspective. We were discussing friends of ours back in California – dear friends, doing-life-together friends who figured prominently in her first three years of life. And she doesn’t remember them. Needless to say, she also has no memory of that first ballet class.
Hmmmm, I thought, maybe I didn’t need to invest quite so much in those early years.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I know how crucial and formative a child’s first years are. But I think that parents (myself included) tend to get so wrapped up in the details that we miss the point. We dwell on what I call “First World Parenting Problems,” like gymnastics and ballet and “Dora,” and forget that most of us are in a fortunate position: for most of us, the important things are the easy things.
Here’s a little quiz to illustrate my point. Answer TRUE or FALSE:
1. My child lives in or is fleeing a war-torn area.
2. Some days I can’t (or don’t) adequately feed and water my child.
3. I have (voluntarily or not) sold my child to human traffickers.
4. I frequently ingest and/or sell illicit substances in my home.
5. I have never told my child that I love them.
If you answered “FALSE” to four out of the five scenarios, I’d say: Congratulations! You’re doing GREAT! (And let’s not forget that some pretty amazing people have emerged from parents who could probably answer “TRUE” to all five).
Kind of puts swim team and gymnastics class and summer camp in perspective, doesn’t it?
Because activities are not mandatory. They’re not like basic safety, or meals, or love. Activities are gravy; their purpose is to provide fun experiences for our kids (and to provide parents with 30-60 minutes of kid-free time). So, this spring, I’m going to stop making activities my First World Parenting Problem. If my kids don’t get into gymnastics class, so what? At least I can feed them three meals a day (whether or not they choose to eat those meals).
I’m still lining up early for gymnastics registration, though. See you there!
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, three young daughters (with another on the way), one adorable puppy — and writing for her blog,The Pickle Patch.