Picture this: you’ve had a humdinger of a week at work. You got to the office early and left late. A few snatched minutes with your kids was all you managed. You did manage to meet your deadlines and that end of year bonus looks in the bag.
But at what price?
Then the weekend comes. You’ve got some time to make up for. So you programme a whole suite of events that are gonna BLOW THEIR SOCKS OFF. Or so you imagine.
Which is great – if everyone has a great time and all your activities go to plan. But what if they don’t? You know how it goes. Kids don’t always share your love of 13th century French art.
Or want to eat waffles from this ‘totally awesome van where your mum and I shared a moment when we were going out’.
Or maybe your entire weekend is spent ferrying them to and from social engagements, parties and sports clubs. You go back to the office for a break (I know someone who does this).
Are you making the most of your time with your family? Or are you just trying to fill it up with activities that don’t involve the iPad? Is there a better way?
Quality Time and The Problem of Planning
You’ve probably heard it dozens of times – Dads saying how much they value time with their kids. And it’s pleasing that Dads today spend nearly triple the time with their kids than in the 1970’s
But is it just a question of quality time over quantity?
Quantity of time isn’t necessarily a factor – studies have shown that the sheer amount of time isn’t as much a factor in children’s development as how that time is used.
This article suggests that watching TV with your kids isn’t necessarily the best use of your time (but then I can’t imagine just watching TV with my kids anyway).
Parents who spend the bulk of their time with children under 6 watching TV or doing nothing can actually have a “detrimental” effect on them.
The study probably doesn’t take account of the new scourge of parents’ attention – the smartphone. How often do you see it? Parents glued to their screens while their kids vainly try to catch their attention.
I’ve seen myself do it so don’t kid yourself that you’ve never done it too. Just because you’re there doesn’t mean you are engaged or in the moment. You could be in the same room but a million miles away checking Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Gab.
So sitting watching TV with kids or doing nothing doesn’t necessarily help them develop or create a closer bond with them (and why would it).
So the answer must be to create elaborate social networks, sporting opportunities and events to keep them stimulated, entertained and (hopefully) tired at the end of the day.
In a bid to improve their kids lives – parents are going to extremes to ‘give them every opportunity’ in life. There’s now a word for this: Overschedulling.
This study (back in 2007) highlighted the problem when the authors concluded that high school students were more likely to be anxious the busier they were with extra curricular activities:
The greater the amount of time students reported participating in activities both at the time of the study and for the entire year, the higher their self-reported level of anxiety tended to be.
(Melman et al 2007)
No great surprises there. But going back to the earlier Washington Post article, kids actually need unstructured time to develop and grow according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
So where does that leave us? Quality time with your kids is important over quantity but not unstructured time although unstructured is good. Plus no one wants over scheduled kids.
Confused? Me too.
Which is why I’d like to now distance myself from these academic studies and enter a place I call ‘Real world and first hand experience’. Let me take you there…
Accessibility – The Ability to be Accessible
Growing up I had a happy childhood. My father, a pastor, worked mostly from home. My mum was a housewife although you’d probably call her a ‘Stay at Home Mum’ now.
So growing up I saw a lot of my parents. They were always around. But I didn’t spend every waking minute with them. In fact they generally left me to do my own thing like:
Hang out with my friends
Ride my bike around the housing estate
Play in the garden, dig holes and grow vegetables
Fight epic battles against pirates, monsters and the English rugby team
Scattered in among these seemingly endless play days were occasional day trips, holidays to North Yorkshire and visits to my cousins’ farm. Helicopter parenting hadn’t been invented.
Neither had ‘overscheduled induced adolescent anxiety’. Outside of school, I did my own thing. It wasn’t called ‘unstructured play time’. It was being a kid.
Twenty odd years later and we’re in this bizarre parallel universe where child psychologists and academics tell us that we’re doing the right thing and the wrong thing all at once. No wonder we’re so confused. And to top it all off, it turns out that doing nothing is what kids really need.
Which brings me to the inspiration for this article. A member of my Dad Network and I were discussing the difficulty of balancing work and family time. As an entrepreneur and business owner, he works long hours. But he’s on hand for his sons and daughter as they grow. He’d done the ‘9 to 5 Jive’ and his advice to me was to be accessible.
Accessible to be able to help with homework or offer a word of advice or a listening ear.
Accessible to go on a bike ride or play catch in the park when all other options are exhausted.
Accessible to take them to a football match (though I’d prefer rugby personally).
In short: to just be ‘around’. His kids are teens now and want to do their own thing more than ever. It’s his privilege just to be on-hand in case they need him.
Maybe that’s what we need to do more of? To finish work that bit earlier, avoid social engagements on the weekend and just be ‘around’ more.
We don’t need to fill every moment with activities, clubs or Star Wars marathons. Kids need their own space. But if we’re accessible, our sons and daughters will be able to find us when they need us. And ignore us when they don’t
This article came out nowhere near how I’d planned it in my head. But what you’ve just read is a truer reflection of what I’m coming to realise and believe: that we are too quick to over-complicate fatherhood.
Imagine if we stripped it right back to the bare essentials?
No frills, no fancy techniques. No child psychologists taking guesses at where we might ‘go wrong’. Instead we focused on demonstrating truth, strength, compassion, justice and love.
Would your sons suffer? Would your daughters struggle? Or would they thrive in their rediscovered freedom – finally able to develop the anti-fragility they will need to navigate their adult years.
I think I know the answer. Do you?
P.S. There’s a growing number of Dads signed up to get my emails. You can join them here.