How I achieve a good life balance for my children, particularly Anna, is very much on my mind at the moment.
I have always been adamant that over-scheduling children’s lives is not a good idea. It’s great for them to have opportunities to try different activities, but they also need time just to hang out as well. Even, maybe, to get bored once in a while. Of course, what exactly constitutes over-scheduling is a moot point. And sometimes things get away from me, despite my best efforts.
We’re really, really lucky because Anna’s school offers a really wide variety of after-school activities. Already she has tried art, football, drama, choir, running, and French – also available are skateboarding, origami, table tennis, gymnastics, Lego, and many more. In her flush of excitement when the list comes out at the beginning of term, Anna would happily put her name down for almost each and every one. I have always been strict at limiting her to two, because I don’t want her to be over-committed and get over-tired.
Now we have moved her swimming lessons from the weekend to one night after school, so that’s three nights of the week gone.
She doesn’t get masses of homework, but every week there is either a maths worksheet, or a ‘creative’ project, as well as spellings, handwriting practice and times tables revision. And then there’s parties, playdates, family days out and so on. All to be squeezed in before she gets a moment to flake out on the sofa.
This term in particular is always exhausting. Anna was diagnosed as dyslexic this year, and so I now have a better understanding of why she is often so wiped out after school, especially at the beginning of a new term. Learning new things, new routines, new skills simply has proportionately more effort on her than on many of her peers. The psychologist who diagnosed her said that her brain will have to work around 30% harder to get to the same result.
This puts us in a triple bind as we try and decide what’s best for her. Learning her tables and her spellings is a massive effort for her. To get there she should probably be doing far more practising than an ‘average’ child, whoever they may be. But it is difficult and often discouraging work for her, so pushing her to do it, when she is already tired after a long day/week at school is very difficult, and often doesn’t feel like the right thing to do.
Nor does curtailing the creative activities she loves and does well at – this term her choice of after school clubs are choir and drama – in order for her to attempt more learning by rote. There will be times when, despite going over them again and again, she will still score 0 on her spelling tests. She understands that this is because of being dyslexic, just a factor of the way her brain is wired, but it must affect her confidence a bit, so having plenty of opportunities to do activities she loves and excels at feels particularly important.
Swimming is just a non-negotiable as far as my husband and I are concerned. We regard it as a life skill just as crucial as times tables – possibly life saving, and definitely life enhancing as it is such brilliant exercise, fun and relaxing, and the gateway to many more sports, such as surfing, which she may want to try when she is older. It’s also important to have plenty of opportunity for her to use up physical as opposed to just mental energy – important for anyone’s health, but especially a child’s. Luckily Anna is really enjoying her swimming lessons at the moment.
I also love her having the chance to spend time with friends outside school. With one friend she has discovered an interest in gardening. With perhaps more optimistic enthusiasm than wisdom we agreed that she and her friend could have a fairly neglected patch of our back garden as ‘theirs’. I thought their initial enthusiasm might wane, but its showing no signs of doing so yet – the patch has been weeded to within an inch of its life, and they are now in the process of filling it with spring bulbs. With another friend she always concocts elaborate performances and shows – scripts, sets, costume design, production, direction and acting all carried out by the two of them. When another friend comes round, they invariably end up creating a den by removing all the cushions from the sofas, and all throws/pillows/duvets from wherever they are around the house, and making an enormous pile in the living room, which they then thrown themselves around in. They have been doing that since they were three, and show no signs of stopping any time soon. I don’t want to discourage any of this, but it generally takes up another evening a week with something other than just chilling out.
I’m normally a big advocate of following your instincts when it comes to parenting. The problem is that at the moment my instincts are telling me Anna is still quite little, and just needs time to relax out of school, they’re telling me that this is the time when she has such a wealth of opportunities to try new things and to socialise and she should make the most of it, and they’re telling me that dyslexia is perhaps going to make her academic life harder in some ways, and that trying to work on some of the basics now will give her the building blocks she needs to succeed in secondary school when the workload really steps up. And so I suspect that the quest to find that elusive perfect balance will continue.