I have a difficult time with white space – those pauses between activities and stress to simply “be” – and this spills over to the way I parent, too. One of my twins constantly asks me for a plan for the day, and usually for the next day, too. “So what are we doing after that?” she will continue to ask even when I don’t give her an answer. It annoys me, if I’m honest, but I’ve also created the conditions that cause her to expect constant activity. I am a mom who enjoys taking my girls with me to fun places and to do enjoyable activities. They absolutely loved our trip to New York City last December at Christmastime. They often seem to be happiest when we’re out – whether it’s flipping through their favorite “Frozen” books at Barnes & Noble, or selecting a new round of library books, or the rare treat of getting donuts or frozen yogurt together, or going to a friend’s house for a playdate.
But in all things, moderation. There is a dark side to my overplanning of our lives, and it looks like stressed out kids who forget how to play by themselves creatively on a rainy afternoon. Or it might be the constant need to have to have something to do (and so they do not enjoy the moment, nor do I).
Enter the current book I’m reading, Simplicity Parenting, on loan from my dear friend and fellow blogger Mary and recommended by her, Maria, and BFF Katherine. It is a powerful corrective to our culture of “too much, too early, and too fast” as author Kim John Payne, M.Ed., terms the overscheduling of childhood. I love, love, love the way he describes the essence of this chapter:
“Activity without downtime is ultimately – like a plant without roots – unsustainable.”
Consider a few suggestions Payne presents of how to make “fallow” time for your child within your family’s daily and weekly rhythm:
- It begins with awareness: “We’ve worshiped at the altar of scheduled activities so dutifully that some parents only think of play in terms of playdates. … If we begin to recognize the value of leisure time and creative time, we’ll make space for them.”
- View boredom as a gift, and refuse to fill the space for them with parent-directed entertainment. Payne suggests to “outbore their boredom with a single, flat response: ‘Something to do is right around the corner!'”
- Build in a balance of days. If there is a highly active, stimulating day (like their school Christmas program or a birthday party), balance this with a few calm stay-at-home days to allow them to regain their equilibrium.
- Practice Sabbath. This harkens back to the way God created a rhythm for humanity of six days of work, one day of rest. Payne (who is not writing from a Christian framework) acknowledges the value of Sabbath, defining it as “distraction-free zones.” Perhaps it is a day when you decide you cannot be reached on your mobile device, and you won’t check email. Maybe it is a Saturday afternoon or evening devoted exclusively to an all-family activity – like making pizza together, going for a hike or a walk in the park, building a Lego village in the play room. “If life is a run-on sentence, then these ‘moments of Sabbath’ are the pauses, the punctuation.”
- Limit organized sports for young kids. “When I speak of the problems with early sport, I’m referring to children younger than ten or eleven years old who are playing formal team sports more than twice a week….When kids younger than ten or eleven become occupied with organized sports, especially to the exclusion of time for free, unstructured play, that involvement can cut crudely across their progression through a variety of play stages that are vitally important to their development.” This is hard, isn’t it? We achievement-oriented parents want our children to likewise be achieving, successful sports and dance stars. It seems like waiting and wading in slowly are key to allow their natural interest to develop at its own pace, and to provide space for much of the “normal” play in life.
What will be the result of more “white space” for our children? They will learn to appreciate the ordinary days (and life exists in the ordinary much more so than the extraordinary). Free(er) schedules foster an ability for them to reach “deep play,” in which their natural imagination and creativity can thrive. We may even uproot potential “seeds for addiction.”
“So much activity can create a reliance on outer stimulation, a culture of compulsion and instant gratification. What also grows in such a culture? Addictive behaviors….[Overscheduling] can establish a reliance, a favoring of external stimulation over emotional or inner activity.”
Most interestingly in Payne’s book, he discusses how a more simple schedule can deepen the gift of anticipation for our children. (What an appropriate time to focus on this as every kid counts down to Christmas!) I close with his words on the value of anticipation, words that echo timeless truth of Scripture on the value of waiting (Advent means waiting):
“Anticipating gratification, rather than expecting or demanding it, strengthens a child’s will. Impulsivity, wanting everything now, leaves the will weak, flaccid. As a child lives with anticipation, as it strengthens over time, so too does their sense of themselves…Unchecked, our wills are like weeds, threatening to take over our whole spirits; invasive vines of desire for what we want (everything) when we want it (now). Anticipation holds back the will; it counters instant gratification. It informs a child’s development and growth and builds their inner life.”
So what are you waiting for? Time to go create some white space with your children and for your children, so that you and they will thrive.