They’ve been chasing seagulls on the beach for twenty minutes, roaring at the startled birds like tiny dinosaurs. Their giggling resonates above the waves with the inimitable delight of toddlerhood. My son and his new friend run back to us puffing and grinning with rosy-red cheeks and windswept hair; the joy of unexpected and spontaneous play is infectious. I can’t stop smiling either.
We arrived in Auckland a week ago as part of my husband’s new work venture, which threatens to complicate the simplistic lifestyle we strive to carve out for ourselves. For the next two years we’ll be fully resuming our roles as global nomads, living between two countries: Canada and New Zealand.
Our best defence has been to neutralize complexity with a level of simplicity that is unprecedented even by our standards, and so far, so good.
We’ve abandoned our usual schedules, and my little man and I are filling our days building sand castles, making new friends, patting dogs, playing hide and seek and enjoying passionfruit sorbet in the fading afternoon sun. We have no agenda, nowhere we need to be. No playdates. No classes. I’ve surrendered to the tides of newness; my day job has slotted around our evolving lives now more than ever.
Although not my birthplace, these two iconic islands floating in the South Pacific have been my home away from home for the last twenty years. They conjure images of green rolling hills, white sandy beaches and snow capped mountains. People say when they visit New Zealand they step back in time to a simpler age. This place feels innocent, untouched by adversity commonplace in other parts of the world.
So, when the time comes to bid farewell to our new little friend I’m struck by the conversation that follows. The boys have had so much fun they want to meet again, but his mother explains her son’s schedule is full for the next week. He’s visibly disappointed. Between daycare, swimming lessons, soccer and playdates he doesn’t have a spare moment.
His mum laughs with a hint of pride when I suggest her three-year-old needs a diary to keep track of his appointments.
As they walk away, my little man shouts, “nice to meet you”. He kisses me on the cheek and we play a while longer before heading home for lunch and a nap. I feel a shadow cast over their morning of innocent wonder as I stand alone with the parental knowledge that they’re unlikely to meet again.
Over the coming days I reflect on the hyper-scheduled child and the fine line between good intentions and too much. Our society expects children’s time, no matter how young, to be structured. To be neat, tidy and accounted for, and all too often, spent away from their parents. It compels me to question why. Why do we push our kids into a maelstrom of external distractions at such a young age?
There is no denying nothing challenges us more physically, mentally and emotionally than parenthood. Most of the time I feel like I’m barely keeping my head above water. But, I also acknowledge this is the life I signed up for. In our modern world, with ever decreasing family support and ever increasing financial demands, parents are understandably overwhelmed with the pressure of daily life.
Outsourcing our children’s time seems to be the obvious answer to find a balance. And as a bonus, daycare and other structured activities claim to provide socialization, independence and greater future success. But, is it true and what’s the real cost for both our kids and us, their parents?
The world our children are growing up in is rapidly changing. Many economists predict self-employment and entrepreneurship will become a considerable part of the economic landscape. Our children will need to be able to think for themselves, shape their own destinies and be confident with a lack of externally provided framework.
Over-scheduling our kids, while well-meaning, may be doing more harm than good.
Simplifying our children’s lives and providing boundless opportunities for free play, is a progressive attempt at insuring our children have the capacity for unprecedented open-mindedness, enlightened thinking and innovation. But, more important than future success, what does over-scheduling do to family life?
Ask any parent if they love their child unconditionally and you’ll be deafened by a resounding and heartfelt, “YES!”. Of course we do. But it doesn’t matter what we say, all that matters is how they feel. And the most important thing to young children is time spent with their parents. When we send them away too frequently we relinquish, often unconsciously, precious opportunities to connect. And when it becomes excessive disconnection can flourish, threatening to undermine the very foundations of our most valued kinship.
“Children spell LOVE….T.I.M.E”, Dr A. Withal
But when time is our most limited resource how do we give it freely? As parents, we find ourselves desperately eking out precious minutes each day for ourselves – to go for a quick walk, to wash our hair or run an errand – time we took for granted before having kids. My husband and I, more often than not now, are burning the candle at both ends trying to get to a place we hope will safeguard unbroken time with our son, reduce the stress in our lives and give us more time for each other.
And, it seems we’re not alone. Increasing numbers of parents are inspired by their children to find creative solutions, because, the old model of earn more money and buy more stuff is failing to bring happiness. Minimalism may hold the answer. As Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist says, “the more stuff you own, the more your stuff owns you.” Having less stuff promises a reverse snowball effect of freeing up time to be spent on the things that make us deeply happy.
Here in our little corner of the world, I’m seeing more clearly what it is I’m chasing. A simple life in a complex world. It’s a tough nut to crack but I plan to give it a jolly good shot. Ultimately, each family must choose what’s right for them. But first, we need to realize we have a choice. We don’t have to follow the standard, if we don’t want to.
The mother I met at the beach is choosing a very different path to mine. She’s financially secure and chooses to stay home with her kids, yet she sends them away as often as she can possibly schedule. The choice baffles me, but I acknowledge the path may be the right one for her, for any number of reasons. My fear is in our haze of modern day overwhelm, our kid’s childhoods will be over in a heartbeat.
And we’ll look back, with grey hair and wrinkled hands, wishing we’d spent more time with them, stretching out our fleeting gift of young parenthood as far as we could have taken it.
It’s ok if your path looks different to mine. The key is not to compare or judge, but rather to hold each other’s hand as we walk these parallel lines of parenthood, and offer guidance, inspiration and support wherever necessary. Because ultimately we all want the same thing: to listen to our children roar with pleasure, their faces aglow with joy – safe in the knowledge that they can do it all over again the next day.