Yesterday, my nine-year-old twins went in for their well visit at the pediatrician. We ticked through all the health items first: what are they eating and drinking, how many hours are they sleeping, what do they do when they feel worried. And then, we talked about the other stuff—what’s their favorite thing about school, who are their friends, and finally, what are their after-school activities.
“I like to read and write stories after school,” Harper said enthusiastically.
“Oh Harper, that’s super,” said our beloved doctor. “Reading will get you everywhere in life. And what else? Do you play a sport or an instrument? Are you in clubs or dance?”
“No,” Harper said slowly. “I just go home.”
Henry confirmed that he also goes straight home after school. No big commitments. No twice-a-week practices or games. Just time spent outside, biking or playing with neighborhood friends, or inside for imaginative play with Winnie, homework or reading (we have a no tech on the weekdays rule at our house).
“Mom,” said Harper as we walked back to our car after the appointment, “when Dr. Knight asked me if I did anything extra like sports or music, I felt kind of bad saying that I didn’t. I mean, should I do all those things?”
Parents, we live in a cultural time when what we “should” do as a family is often determined by someone else’s standard of normal. In just the last week, flyers came home in homework folders informing me that my children could sign up for spring baseball, baton twirling, cheerleading, self-defense classes, and martial arts.
We are inundated with all the activities we can choose for our children, many of them requiring steep fees and large time commitments. While I appreciate the variety of choice and have, several times, signed one of my kids up for classes like instrument exploration, gymnastics, ballet, fiddle, art, soccer, and the like, I also reserve the right to undercommit.
The art of undercommitting is about determining what’s best for your family in each life season. It may be foregoing piano in favor of Lego sets around the kitchen table. It may be reading together after dinner instead of taxiing the children to and from. It may be Saturday morning hikes replacing cheering from the soccer sidelines.
At a time when we are told that our children can do anything they want to do and be anything they want to be, undercommitting is a brave, intentional decision.
As it turns out, I completely agree with the be-anything sentiment, but disagree with the prescription. Mountains of after-school activities may not impact my middle daughter the way time in front of her typewriter will—penning articles for a school newspaper that she’s decided to publish and hand out to classmates.
As I write this year on simple rhythms that create spacious margins, I encourage you to sit down with your weekly family calendar. Fill in all the must-do’s: doctor’s appointments, tutoring, work events. Then pencil in all the want-to’s: club activities, sports, playdates. Is there any white space left? Any margin?
Use this calendar as a guide as you chart out your larger spring schedule. Can you find—or move things around to create—a day or two each week with no activities? Will you decide to push against your inclination to fill the white space?
Do you know what happens to all those flyers that come home from school announcing the next best activity for my third graders? I post them up on the fridge. We look at them for a few days. And then I let the deadlines expire.