Ode to a Rush-Free Childhood

by Pia K. Ruda

As parents, we are constantly playing catch up in several fields at once, trying to keep up with the others. Almost two months before the new school year started, I was already too late to sign up for library duty at my son’s school.  More efficient and organized parents had taken the shifts, on the first day of sign ups.  To get the optimal time slots for piano lessons, tennis, or art classes, you have to be on it.  I am an outcast in this game.  In fact, I am growing to celebrate it.

I’ve seen many kids pushed into too many activities by perky parents, but especially by parents of endlessly curious, high ability children (code for gifted).  These parents sigh that their offspring is “just so interested in everything.”  They say that their kids insist on being a part of all those activities.  Gifted children do often have natural abilities in several areas:  sports, acting, music, or art, to name a few. Luckily, many fields can be explored in unstructured ways that do not require long-term commitments.  A pursuit does not always have to give your child a certificate of achievement or a medal at the end.  

Luckily, many fields can be explored in unstructured ways that do not require long-term commitments.  A pursuit does not always have to give your child a certificate of achievement or a medal at the end.

Choosing the rush-free path can be especially hard with the multi-talented gifted child. What if he could be the next big thing in something that we rule out?  What if he misses out, if he doesn’t reach his potential?  Well, then, I guess we will never find out – and I choose to take comfort in that.  I believe that true passions are not so easily silenced, and that they will thrive even in less optimal conditions.  I believe that they will grow, much like resistant wildflowers between the rocks, without all that top-of-the-line fertilizer and weeding.  Boredom makes healthy wrinkles and cracks in our kids’ perfect lives.  Through those cracks, creativity and new ideas flourish.

I believe that they will grow, much like resistant wildflowers between the rocks, without all that top-of-the-line fertilizer and weeding.  Boredom makes healthy wrinkles and cracks in our kids’ perfect lives.  Through those cracks, creativity and new ideas flourish.

Having moved to the U.S. a little over a decade ago, it has been interesting to observe parental roles and expectations in this country.  Here, filling a child’s life with as many structured activities as possible seems to be one of the key measuring sticks of successful parenting.  Families aim for perfectly planned and balanced schedules with a great variety of activities.  These tightly packed days start in toddlerhood.  I remember watching my boys’ classmates getting hastily transported to activities after Pre-K, shoving down a snack in the car.   They ran to karate, ballet, violin, baseball, art, or gymnastics – a different activity each day.   “You want them exposed,” parents would say.  “You want to give them all these choices.  You don’t want them to miss out.”

But what if they miss out on their own childhood?

A gifted child, especially one with the perfectionism monster lurking on his shoulder, can get anxious with the pressures and demands. Some gifted kids base their self-worth on their achievements, on what they measurably do.  Especially for these children, it can be beneficial to consciously shift the focus towards celebrating learning itself.  They need awareness of their own discoveries, their new connections and thoughts, and the feelings found within themselves, through the exploration of a new field. In order to give room for character development, I firmly believe in allowing our children breathing room.  They need space to discover who they are, and what is truly important to them.  They need unstructured time, to discover their inner world, without too much push-and-pull and direction.  

Social-emotional growth and well-being need both time and space.

Cultural reflection is where I spend a lot of my own time.  From my perspective, I see this game – scheduling and programming our children and youth – in the revealing Arctic light.  In my native country, little Finland, things are different.  We have no school sports teams, no cheerleaders, and no prom queens or kings.  In Finland, college admissions are solely based on academic success in high school, as well as subject specific entry exams.  As a result, the kids are not required to have inhumane numbers of recorded achievements from a variety of extracurricular activities.  In Finland, kids spend their afternoons playing, with a hobby of their choice, or sometimes just getting bored.

We Finns are a nation of complete slacker parents compared to the U.S. – yet Finland has gained positive publicity over the past years, shining at the top of international comparisons of learning results. Critical thinking is valued high.  You can’t analyze if you are over-scheduled – with too little time, you just take information in, without digesting it.  I see the rush-free childhood as a right, much like recess and school lunches.  These are children’s rights, not privileges.  For me, this is closely linked to “instinct parenting,” which gives the parents the right to follow their own safe instincts when parenting their own children, instead of religiously following the manual of the moment.

We Finns are a nation of complete slacker parents compared to the U.S. – yet Finland has gained positive publicity over the past years, shining at the top of international comparisons of learning results. Critical thinking is valued high.  You can’t analyze if you are over-scheduled – with too little time, you just take information in, without digesting it.

So, I’ve decided it is just fine not keeping up with it all, and I think we’re still going to be just fine in the end.  I have never heard an adult complain bitterly that he had too much time to play as a kid, or that he spent too many hours reading books and riding his bike.  I have, however, heard bitter adults share memories of parents making them play a certain sport, or practice an instrument for which they themselves felt no passion.  

Yes, my boys are missing out on so many activities in which they could potentially shine.  But I would rather have them not miss out on their own childhood.  I want to give them space to find themselves, and not force-feed the ingredients of the ideal overachiever. That is where my priority lies. With the long American school days, and excessive amounts of homework, it is hard — but I try to give my sons the leading parts in their childhoods. Now is the time, for there won’t be any dress rehearsals.

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