Squeezed for Time
What Family Time?
Putting family first in an era of super-scheduled kids
By David Whitford
It was one of those insane week-ends for Andrea Heier, starting at noon on Friday, when she scooped up her daughter Bonnie, sixteen, after an Advanced Placement exam and drove “as fast as we could” from Wayzata, Minnesota, to Des Moines, Iowa, for Bonnie’s synchronized swimming regional meet. (That would be Bonnie’s club synchro team; she also swims for her school team, as does little sister Nell, which means that during big chunks of the year they’re both in the pool every day, sometimes twice, including weekends.) They arrived just in time for Bonnie’s scheduled prelims at four. It’s good they did, Heier explains, because “if you’re not there on time you lose your spot and you lose five points and it affects your whole team.” Then things slowed down for, oh, the next thirty-six hours. Bonnie swam, stretched, or worked with her teammates, Nell did the same, Andrea watched, and in between they slept, until eleven on Saturday night, when they left for home, arriving around three in the morning. A few hours later, Heier drove to church. She’s director of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka in Wayzata and it was “RE Sunday”: two services, two sets of volunteers to recognize with kind words and a token gift. “A pretty huge weekend,” says Heier. Oh yes, it was Mother’s Day. Heier almost forgot.
Now it’s eight o’clock that night. Heier is back at church, in a spacious common room adjacent to the empty sanctuary, sitting around a table with several parishioners and me. We’re all parents of school-age children, and we’re all missing Sunday evening at home with our families, ironically so that we can compare notes on how little time we get to spend with our families. For the parishioners, tonight’s gathering is an early step in what’s expected to be a lengthy process of self-examination and change guided by a group with Unitarian Universalist roots called Putting Family First.
The starting point for all of us is our growing sense of disquiet that the traditional components of family life—shared meals, unstructured activities, intergenerational gatherings, just hanging out—are, among today’s middle-class families, giving way (or gave way long ago) to music lessons, dance classes, and football practices, with consequences we can only guess at. In the suburbs, where I live, we’ve been talking about soccer moms and mourning the loss of the family dinner hour for years, and numerous studies confirm the trend. Between 1981 and 1997, according to the University of Michigan Survey Research Center, children lost twelve hours of free time per week, play time declined by 25 percent, and time spent in unstructured outdoor activities fell by half. Meanwhile, commitment to structured sports doubled, time spent watching other people (like siblings) play sports rose five-fold, and studying increased almost 50 percent. By now we’ve nearly forgotten it was ever any other way. If finally we’re beginning to question what has become of family life in the face of so many external demands, well, we hardly know where to begin. We don’t even have the language for it.
Karen Hulting, sitting next to Heier, has an eleven-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son. She admits to some regret that she ever let Katie sign up for fall basketball; she was already playing soccer. “We thought it was a rounding kind of thing,” she says. “Turned out she was great at it.” Now that Katie is on two traveling teams with killer schedules and overlapping seasons, weekends for the family are pretty much all sports, all the time. Hulting is not exactly complaining. She and her husband were reluctant at first but soon found they enjoyed the atmosphere with the families and spending time with their daughter like that. But, she adds, “I worry long term. We need to figure out something for the dinner times and the connecting every day. I have great plans in my head about how I’m going to do all these things. But then you get tired.”
Across the table, Julia Antonsen is nodding her head. As a kindergarten teacher, she views her job these days as partly to counterbalance the effects of very busy schedules on very young children. “Oh my gosh, you poor babies!” is what goes through her mind when they describe for her their twelve-hour days filled with pre-school and after-school programs, soccer practice (“I have no idea why kindergartners need to have soccer two days a week”), and karate lessons. So now she carves out extra time during the school day for simple things like coloring; and she makes a point of not preparing all her activities ahead of time, which allows her students the quiet pleasure of watching her work. They seem to like that, just watching. “I equate it to churning butter,” Antonsen says. “They want to just sit there and be a part of churning butter.”
Bill Doherty, the founder of Putting Family First, is director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota and the author of several books that speak to the spiritual and political dimensions of family life, including Take Back Your Kids and his latest, Putting Family First. Through Putting Family First, Doherty is trying to reinforce the traditional structures of family life—intergenerational connections, faith-community connections, neighborhood connections. He says too many families have lost their center. Instead of the child’s life revolving around the life of the family, the family revolves around the child, whose own life is spinning every which way. “It’s the colonization of family life by the forces of competitive capitalism,” says Doherty. “Parenting has become a form of product development in which we look to maximize our child’s opportunities in every way possible.”
As middle-class parents of two school-age daughters, my wife and I come up against these issues every day. It’s not a question of forcing our kids to do anything they don’t want to do. Oh no, we’re not that kind of family. (Full disclosure: except maybe when it comes to music lessons; we know they’ll thank us later, so we’re not giving in.) But what do we say to our talented and eager ten-year-old when she makes the select soccer team (two practices a week and travel on weekends) and she’s already in Girl Scouts (every other Saturday) and ballet (two afternoons a week), plays the cello, sings in the church choir, and tells us she really enjoys her twice-a-week sessions with the math tutor? In the end, not much. Maybe we agonize after the kids are in bed but finally we shrug our shoulders and find a way to make it work.
And how do we tell our sleek, athletic thirteen-year-old that she can’t fill the gap between fall and spring soccer by joining an indoor winter league in a faraway town, a league that schedules most of its games on Saturday mornings before the sun comes up? We don’t, we say okay. I drag myself out of bed and stop for coffee and donuts on the way, and ultimately I don’t really mind because she’s having fun and getting a lot out of it, and honestly, I am, too. It’s enjoyable (once I wake up), and it feels like the right place to be, there on the sidelines, watching her run, cheering, consoling, joking with the other parents about how busy we all are. If sometimes I remember longingly the Saturday mornings before sports, when I used to make banana pancakes, and we’d sit around the breakfast table, listening to music, the girls still wearing their nightshirts, just enjoying each other’s company, well, what can you do? This is life, right?
Maybe so, at least for families whose good fortune it is to find themselves wrestling with problems of too much rather than too little. But life wasn’t always this way, and there’s no law that says it has to be this way now. How did we end up in this mess? Many factors, says Doherty, but please don’t blame two-income families: “My observation is that if you’re a stay-at-home mother or father, you overschedule your kids as much as the others.” Parents are scared, Doherty says; that’s a big part of it: Scared of all the kidnappers and child molesters they hear about on the evening news, and therefore reluctant to leave their kids unsupervised. Worried about how hard it will be for their kids to get into a good college (without a buff resume). Wondering how they’ll pay for college (without an athletic scholarship). Nervous about what other parents are doing for their kids. Afraid for their teenage daughters, hoping that by playing sports they’ll grow up caring more about being strong and healthy than about being popular and thin.
If you’re above all that, good for you. But it’s a rare family that can stand alone against such powerful social norms. Besides, who are your kids going to play with if all their friends are booked?
“The way I say this is there’s like 4 percent of parents who don’t care about the pack,” says Doherty (“I just made up that percentage,” he adds). “Half of them are feeding their kids macrobiotic diets and letting them sleep in the family bed until they’re ten and homeschooling them for the wrong reasons. And then the other 2 percent are the superparents who are countercultural and they’re raising amazing kids.
“You can study them, but you can’t build a movement for social change off them. I’m more interested in the folks who have done some soul-searching about this and who’ve gotten some support, and I want to hold them up.”
Don’t think this isn’t a huge issue for Unitarian Universalists. Doherty, a member of the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, has been a Unitarian Universalist for twenty-five years. He recognizes that many UUs are—how to put this?—ambivalent about family life. “We are out on the left politically and ideologically,” says Doherty, “and the left for more than a hundred years has been ambivalent about family life as a source of conformity and oppression. The left decided in the last twenty years that it could tolerate family life as long as we define family with diversity. As long as we say, ‘all kinds of families,’ then we can say the word. But until twenty years ago people on the left couldn’t even say the ‘F’ word. We as UUs have trouble with that kind of reverence for an institution, and for the demands of family life on individuals.”
All that cultural baggage, says Doherty, combined with the fact that UUs, for the most part, are middle-class, educated folks living squarely within the mainstream culture (“although we like to think we’re counterculture, I don’t think we particularly are”), puts Unitarian Universalist families at special risk. “We’re not out ahead on this one,” says Doherty. “If anything, UU parents tend toward the overindulgent side of parenting in order not to be authoritarian. We certainly—believing in the inherent worth and dignity of each person—can easily lop over to the idea that every child has limitless potential in every possible area and our job is to bring that forth. Our problem is when to say enough. Even when the kid is willing and desirous. That’s our dark side.”
Then there’s the Unitarian Universalist preoccupation with that beautiful and tyrannical question, What is your gift? Beautiful because it challenges us to discover the divine spark within. Tyrannical because it hovers there all our lives, taunting us (“it’s got to be unique!” says Doherty), and, what’s relevant here, prompting us to throw our kids into every conceivable organized activity, hoping they’ll discover their gift.
I know my wife rolls her eyes sometimes when she hears talk at church about “the gift,” rolls her eyes and feels diminished, because she has an Ivy League degree but no profession, and she doesn’t play an instrument, and she doesn’t make art any more (like she used to in college). She’s just a smart, sensitive, loving, generous, sane woman whose main job is raising kids. Which of course is a gift; sometimes she remembers that. But are we doing all we can to teach our kids that vital lesson?
Heier, the religious education director at the Wayzata church, thinks not. She worries that by presenting our children with so many competitive opportunities—all of which have competency levels, win-loss records, performances, and other markers of success—we may be teaching them to think of their gift as necessarily a talent or an accomplishment. “It will only be for so long in your life that your personal success in achieving a goal can be what you rely on for meaning,” says Heier. “Sooner or later will come a time when you may not be able to achieve any goals beyond survival. It would be sad if someone had no meaning in their lives when they were in that stage.”
No one is suggesting that kids should never sign up for anything. Music lessons, team sports, scouting, these are all good things. But when families sacrifice shared meals night after night, for example, to time-gulping, no-excuses practice schedules, we may be making a big mistake. The same University of Michigan survey found that shared mealtime is a better predictor of higher test scores and other markers of success than anything else we can do with our kids.
Team sports in many ways are the worst offenders. One exception that’s attracted national attention—and an official Putting Family First seal of approval—is the Wayzata Plymouth Youth Football League. Commissioner David Gaither, a Republican state senator from Wayzata, was one of a handful of local youth league directors who heard Doherty speak at a community gathering a couple of years ago. “I saw the value in what he was trying to do,” says Gaither. “I got it. But what I also saw was he needed someone to champion that cause with him. Someone had to lead. So I raised my hand and said, ‘Football will play.’”
Gaither, a former high school state champion hurdler, could never be accused of being anti-sports. “There is a principle,” he says. “I think I learned this from my father: You need to increase your failure rate as a kid to increase your success rate.” He thinks sports are a prime vehicle for that.
But Gaither also believes, with Doherty, that team sports steal too much time from families. His league is different. Among the rules: No practices on weekends; no practices during the dinner hour; no consequences for missing a game or a practice for any reason (as long as the player, not the parent, contacts the coach); ample guaranteed playing time for all; and an elaborate system of assigning players to teams that guarantees an equal distribution of talent. There are no elite teams in the Wayzata League; every team in each division takes turns traveling. And still Wayzata is competitive with surrounding towns that load their top teams with the best players. “We keep score,” says Gaither. “Even though we have equal playing time and all these governing rules, our winning percentage is about .750.”
Gaither’s big worry about children who spend too much time in activities organized by adults is that they won’t ever learn how to be leaders. He thinks leaders emerge naturally from unsupervised interaction with peers. “If we eliminate the leadership quotient by all this structure, what does that portend for the future?” says Gaither “I’m very concerned about that.” For others, this issue is more about preserving space in our lives for inactivity and reflection, even boredom; or holding out against the invasive tentacles of consumer capitalism; or not letting conformist influences distract us from our true selves.
Back at the Wayzata church, reflecting as a mother and as a religious professional, Heier gives voice to a flood of spiritual concerns. She mourns the loss of just-being-together time for families, the “opportunities for dealing with people of different ages, learning the roles people play at different stages in their lives, the issues that affect them and how they deal with those issues. That’s not something you learn in school. That’s not something you learn in ballet class.”
She worries, too, about what Unitarian Universalist children miss when, because of other commitments, or maybe just exhaustion, they dip in and out of Sunday school. Those kids, says Heier, “are more apt to stray. Not that everyone has to be a Unitarian Universalist but I do think our faith has something to offer to the world. I think most of us would admit to wanting our children to carry on, and I think attendance is key to that.” The kids who miss being part of the classroom community on Sundays may pick up “the general philosophy of being open-minded,” Heier says, but not “that sense of identity that to me is key to developing the faith.”
Finally, Heier believes that when adults focus so much effort and attention on helping youths develop their talents, we strip them of any authentic role in the culture just as they are. “They have no importance other than to be self-serving,” she says. “They’re supposed to be out there becoming the best people that they can be. But they aren’t valued just for themselves.”
Okay, time for a quiz. Three-day weekend coming up. You don’t always get to take advantage of these mini-vacations but this time you planned ahead: squared things away at work, as did your spouse, and made arrangements for the whole family to be together in a quaint, seaside town, away from television, computers, and household chores. Everybody’s looking forward. Then the coach of your teenage daughter’s soccer team sends out an e-mail, says he’d like to place the team in a tournament that weekend—strictly voluntary, of course, but you know what that means. Your daughter loves soccer. She’s a top scorer, her teammates are depending on her. Suddenly she doesn’t want to go on vacation with the family anymore, she wants to play in the tournament. What do you do?
If you said, “Cancel the weekend plans,” congratulations. By today’s standards, you’re a model parent. You only want what’s best for your kids. You give them plenty of opportunities to excel. You do everything you can to help them discover their gifts. And you support them all the way.
Doherty, of course, believes you’re making a big mistake. He wishes you would simply say, “The family is taking priority here, we planned this months ago, we’re going on vacation.” And take the heat. “This is about leadership,” he says. “Everybody sacrifices for the common good.”
I agree with Doherty, I suppose. In principle. But my wife and I weren’t just taking a quiz, we had to make a decision. When my wife first told me about the tournament, I said, “No way,” and she agreed with me. But then we talked to some of the other parents; they were all planning on letting their daughters play. And we began to think through what our trip would be like if the whole time we were away, our daughter Emma was wishing she were somewhere else. Doherty would argue that if we had done our job as parents, the question would never even come up; Emma would know without asking that the family weekend has to take priority. Well, maybe in Doherty’s family. We caved.
Imagine our delight, then, when the tournament was cancelled. Not enough teams signed up. So we had our little family vacation after all. And my wife and I escaped having to make a tough decision. Until the next time.