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The Goldilocks principle and your child’s afternoons

September 20, 2018
By Carl Parke

Growing up, my after-school routine was pretty simple. My sister and I would get home, eat a snack, and head outside until sunset, the universal curfew for that era. I recall a few years of piano and dance lessons, but for the most part, we enjoyed what has come to be known as “unstructured play.”

Well-publicized crimes committed against children began to chip away at the idea that children could adequately take care of themselves in the few hours between school and dinner. In addition to crime, accidents of many types could occur while children roamed the neighborhood, and parents increasingly decided free reign was not worth the risk.

Coupled with this desire for safety was an increasingly competitive college admissions process. As college admissions got more competitive, many parents and students began to feel pressure to find activities to fill academic resumes and bolster test scores. Practically overnight, an industry to prepare students for college, above and beyond what many of their high schools already offered, sprang up everywhere.

Simultaneously, the budgets of many public schools languished. Arts were often cut. Meanwhile, research showed ties between academic achievement and robust arts programs. Therefore, many parents sought after-school enrichment activities, even in areas with school arts programs. Many families also felt an exposure to the arts improves a person’s life, hence the growth of after-school arts programs.

These three forces worked in tandem to increase the scheduled activities filling children’s afternoons. Simultaneously, many schools began to react to international tests indicating America’s schools had fallen behind much of the world. Homework loads increased to help beat the competition. Sports, social, and religious activities also ate into free time. For many parents, that scheduled time was much more productive, and preferable, than letting their child vegetate in front of a screen. With the advent of smartphones and other media devices, children can easily while away hours, if not days, playing games, watching videos, or just chatting with their friends.

Others feel over-scheduled children should not only have more free time but more free time without the supervision of adults. New York City has a park, the Yard, where parents are not allowed. A few “playworkers” step in only when absolutely needed. Within the park are saws, hammers, nails, as well as piles of lumber and tires. Proponents of this free-range parenting insist some childhood risk benefits interpersonal skill development, fosters creativity, and makes teens more resilient.

The evidence for both arguments is sound. What’s a parent to do? Be like Goldilocks. She chooses the porridge that is not too hot and not too cold. It was just right (in balance). The same happens when she goes upstairs to the bears’ bedroom. One bed is too hard and another is too soft. Goldilocks prefers the one that is just right (in balance).

Find a balance that works for your child and family. Overscheduling can lead to overly stressed children. School, followed by hours of daily activities, is probably “too hot”. Yet, most parents want to enrich their child’s life, prepare them for high school/college and limit screen time. Screens of all types are so pervasive in our society, they are hard to manage if children are allowed to just hang out after school. No structure at all is likely “too cold”.

How much structure is “just right”? As with many aspects of parenting, it depends on the child, so be prepared to experiment. Find an activity a day or two each week the entire family can do together. The activity isn’t important. The time spent together is. A physical activity can potentially meet two needs at once, one for physical activity and one for family time.

The research about positive impacts from art and music programs is overwhelming, so an enrichment activity is worth considering. Be sure to allow for some unstructured time. It may be as simple as an unstructured hour a week in a park. The sundown curfew of my childhood may not have been balanced, but thinking like Goldilocks can help any parent find a sweet spot in the middle of the road for their child.