Excerpted from HOW CHILDREN THRIVE: The Practical Science of Raising Independent, Resilient, and Happy Kids, by Mark Bertin, MD. Sounds True, May 2018. Reprinted with permission.
The day ends and you pull into your driveway. You open the mailbox and, groaning, take out a two-inch pile of mail, 90 percent junk, but needing to be sorted. Riffling through it as you walk, there are, of course, several bills, one of which says, “Second Notice.” How did that happen?
Your spouse is upstairs working while the babysitter plays downstairs with your son. There is a note on the table: “It’s your turn to make dinner.” Apparently, you were supposed to do the shopping. Time to order in again.
As you throw your keys onto the table, you see the note you wrote yourself to call the painter who hasn’t come to finish his work in several months. The dentist, you remember out of the blue, you forgot that callback too. And one more business call awaits, left over from your day. Oh, and the dishwasher should be emptied, and the garbage . . . and a mental fog slowly settles on the evening.
Except your child awaits, and you promised to play ball with him when you got home. But there’s a pull; everything would sure feel better if the to-do list got done — for once. Or maybe not. Taking a breath, you leave the rest for later. Your son gets his promised time together. You’ll sort out dinner, and the to-do list can wait until after his bedtime.
Healthy living starts with stepping out of autopilot. Our lives may feel driven by the need to plan, control, and not miss out on an activity that might cause our children to fall behind. Yet in a calmer moment, we might recognize little of that to be true. Often we are living quite differently than what we’d recommend to anyone asking our advice.
The solution starts with pausing, checking in, and prioritizing. For ourselves, that means finding what keeps us sane in the midst of family demands. For children, that means emphasizing whatever they most need and enjoy and setting aside much of the rest.
Outside of fun time, social time, and school, what do children actually require? When it comes to executive function, various everyday activities relate to its growth. Anything emphasizing sustained concentration builds attention; the fractured, rapidly skipping attention created by media does not. For a family, that means, in a gentle way, starting with reading, imaginative play, art, sports, board games, and similar activities. As you’ll soon see, in early childhood, both unplugged, engaged play and reading are particularly vital steps toward school success.
Of course, we should not (and cannot) force children to enjoy an activity because it’s good for them any more than we can force someone to like brussels sprouts. Instead, by patiently exploring various options, sticking to priorities, and creating boundaries about what’s healthy, children discover their own interests in time. One message may be, for example, that everyone exercises, so it doesn’t matter what you sign up for, but you stay active somehow.
Beyond enjoyable activities, how we spend our time in other ways matters too. Research shows family meals alone correlate with fewer behavioral problems. Healthy sleep, exercise, and quality nutrition may contribute to long-term development. And, of course, when with your children, you can emphasize on a moment-by-moment level giving them your full attention whenever you’re able.
Periodically pause and reassess your family time. What could you cut or simplify? Using a daily calendar and blank paper, use the following exercise to help you prioritize your family’s schedule.
1. Lay out your family’s schedule as it is now. On a daily calendar or blank paper, record a typical weekday and a weekend day. Get into the details. For each family member, include when everyone wakes and goes to bed and unavoidable logistics, like cooking, cleaning, your job, homework, and getting ready for school. Estimate time spent checking email, surfing the web, playing games, and watching television, as well as time spent on recreation, driving, and all the rest of the family’s logistics.
2. Create a new calendar from scratch. On a second blank page, record what you’d like to prioritize first. Start with what’s nonnegotiable — school hours, bedtime, homework, or anything else that may not change right now, noting what’s actually fixed (the bus comes at 6:50 a.m.) versus what’s adjustable (bedtime at 8:30 p.m. might work better this year).
3. Fill in next what you value most. Include whatever you choose to prioritize, for yourself and your children, like exercise, spending time with friends or family, reading, creative pursuits, after-school activities and social time, and engaging in fun and positive activities together. Make sure to include your self-care, and schedule downtime for your children if that tends to get lost in the shuffle.
4. Consider what to do with any unscheduled time. Time remaining is potentially available for nonessential activities: another after-school activity, television or video games, or whatever has been consuming family time. Or leave that time blank, and see what happens.
Whatever you prioritize, your children will more likely do so too over time. If you want your child to be a reader, they must see you reading a book, not a screen, since on a device they have no idea if you’re playing a first-person shooter or reading a novel. If you want them to seek out open-ended playtime, hiking, museums, exercise, or anything else, childhood habits begin with how parents schedule their families through the years.
You already know what is best, even if the pressures of life temporarily get in the way of carrying through. Break the inertia by pausing and starting over with your schedule. Dedicate time to what’s required, protect time for what you value, and create a plan that meets the temperament of you and your family.
Mark Bertin is a developmental behavioral pediatrician and author of How Children Thrive and Mindful Parenting for ADHD. He is an assistant professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College, on the faculty of the Windward Teacher Training Institute, and on the editorial advisory board of Common Sense Media.