WHAT DO YOU DO ALL DAY? (and why I don’t sign my kids up for activities)

What do you do all day?

It’s the age old question asked of stay-at-home moms.

My husband has endured enough tears (and yelling) that I’m fairly sure he won’t ask again – although he was recently brave enough to ask, “How is the hamper always full when you are always folding laundry?” – but I still hear the question. 

I hear it, mostly, from other moms who cannot fathom that my pre-preschool aged kids don’t take any classes. These mothers nearly always fall into one of two camps, the “How do you keep them entertained!?” mothers and the “You’re not concerned about development?” mothers. The short answers to those questions, of course, are, “I don’t,” and, “Not in the slightest.”

(Or, I suppose, to be more honest, the answer to the second question is that I have a tremendous amount of concern for my children’s development, and that is exactly why you won’t catch me signing them up for a soccer clinic.)

In a culture that has passed our addiction to over-scheduling down to our very youngest members, it sometimes feels impossible to opt out, but we have and I couldn’t be happier. Our life without structured activities is still full of adventure and learning, and with the time I would have spent schlepping us all to a music class, here are some of the things I’m able to do instead:

Trust my children to be their own teachers

Perhaps the most powerful driver in our frenzy to sign our children – even our babies – up for classes is the belief that learning cannot happen in the absence of a teacher. We want our children to be curious and to learn new things, so of course we have to enroll them in classes where those things are taught.

But do we?

The Bug can paint vivid and complex pictures, do somersaults, and handle a soccer ball like a teeny tiny pro – not because anyone taught him, but because nobody got in his way when he was trying to learn.

He didn’t need an art teacher to tell him that a dry brush will apply paint differently than a wet one or that flinging his brush wildly will create a symphony of splatter across the page. He just needed permission to make a mess.

Children are capable of infinitely more than we give them credit for and know better than anyone what they are ready to learn. 

Say YES to mess

Play is messy (at least the way my children do it!) and mess is not always convenient. I find that minimizing our commitments frees me to say “yes” to things that I can’t (or won’t) when we’re in a hurry. Getting out the door with two toddlers is hard enough when nobody is covered in mud. But my kids love being covered in mud. They love to paint. They love to be covered in mud while they paint. And I want to say “yes,” to all of it, enthusiastically and without worrying that it will eat too much time out of our schedule.

Yesterday, as I cleaned up from breakfast, the Bug came into the kitchen and opened the tupperware cabinet. Before he reached in, he asked, “Please may I borrow all these so I can build a fire truck?” My impulse was to say, “No.” I just finally had the kitchen back in order and I wasn’t terribly keen on dragging everything out of the cabinets, but I took a deep breath and thought, “Why not? We have nowhere to be,” and instead of saying “No,” I said, “Sure. Thank you for asking so politely. I can’t wait to see what you build!”


Leave room for imaginative play

Opting out of activities gives my kids the opportunity to fill their days, not with things I chose for them because they were marketed as “enriching” or “educational” or with things that seem interesting or fun to me, but with the things that are interesting and fun to them.

I want my children to make their own fun – to have their own ideas and the confidence to execute them. That doesn’t happen without time. Time to have the idea. Time to play it through the end. Time to ask themselves what’s next.

This morning, while I’ve been washing dishes, doing laundry, and tending to the kittens that fell out of our attic over the weekend (long story), the kids have been doing the following: 

Playing Trader Joe’s (aka pushing baskets around the house and filling them with everything in reach. I’ll be honest, not my favorite game they’ve invented.)

Making an enormous pile with all of their Trader Joe’s “purchases.”

Navigating the conflict that arose when Babygirl wanted to play with the things in the pile and Bug wanted the pile to be “just only for looking.” (After trying a handful of unsuccessful strategies – yelling, bringing her the basket of Magformers, and, my favorite, a false accusation of poop: “Mommy, take Baby, change her diaper. She smells poopy!” – peace was restored when the Bug ran to his room and came back with a new library book that he offered to trade her for the book she had taken from the pile.)

Picking up everything in the Trader Joe’s pile. (Disclosure: this was mostly me picking up while the children were suddenly desperate to read, pretended to be asleep, and the Bug flopped around the room explaining that he was “too wiggly” to clean up.) 

Jumping on the bed while shouting, “USC Trojans!”

Playing with the Bug’s new toy helicopter. (During this, I overheard him whisper a slightly unsettling conversation between the two pilots: “Hey, are you asleep?” “No. Are you asleep?” “No.”)

Turning the sofa into a train and bouncing back and forth between the dining car and the sleeping car, while repeatedly showing me their “tickets.”

Inviting me on board the train to read a few books.

Playing ghost (running in circles in Babygirl’s room with the lights out and making shrieking houses while wearing hats…because ghosts wear hats?)

Emptying the entire contents of Babygirl’s dresser while I thought they were still playing ghost.

Perhaps that sounds like a wasted morning to a mother whose child came home with a painting of a handprint flower garden or who learned four new sight words thanks to the flash cards they’ve made such a commitment to drilling. And it’s true, we don’t typically have much to show for ourselves at the end of the day, aside from a messy house and a whole lot of laundry, but when you see it in action, there is no way to deny the creative, intellectual, and relational learning that goes on when two toddlers use every pillow in the house to build a rocket ship and fly it to the moon. 

Listen to my kids

When I woke up this morning, I had big dreams of hitting the Starbucks drive-thru and then picking up a lighting fixture I’ve been coveting. But the morning slipped away from us as I watched the kids playing, happily moving at their own direction from one thing to the next. I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt their play – their learning – to strap them in the car on an errand. 

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of mornings that listening to my kids means ensuring that we are in the stroller and en route to the park by 8:45am so nobody loses their mind…or their eye. But this wasn’t one of those mornings. Today, they were happy and in sync as they played, so we stayed home. And even as I sipped my home-brewed coffee in the glow of a lighting fixture I despise, I was so thankful that our errands could wait, that I didn’t have to say, “Everybody off the train! We’re going to swim class!”

Stress less

(This one is selfish, perhaps, but I find it difficult to parent without my sanity, so I’m including it!)

The other night, I got sucked into a thread on Facebook where a frustrated mom asked for advice about how to get her daughter out the door on time for story time at the library with less protest. There was good advice (when she refuses to put on either shirt offered, say, “It looks like you need help choosing. Let’s do the yellow one!”) and bad advice (promise her a cookie if she gets in the car!), but I was surprised that nobody bothered to ask, Why do you have to go?

Let’s be real for a minute: if this little girl were truly that into story time, getting out the door wouldn’t be such a struggle. If you don’t believe me, you should see how fast the playroom gets picked up when I tell the kids we’re heading to Gampy’s house!

To me – a stranger assuming I know what’s up because I read five sentences someone posted on the Internet – this seemed so clearly to be an instance of a mother with the best intentions creating unnecessary stress for herself and her daughter. Story time is wonderful, and when we happen to be walking by the library at 10:20, popping in is always a treat, but it’s not important enough to me to allow it to dictate the rest of our morning.

We have one commitment that we have to be on time for: church.

The rest of the time, our outings happen at our leisure. If stacking the cones while we’re picking up the playroom to leave lights a new fire to play construction site, that’s fine. There will still be food at the farmers market in 30 minutes and books at the library in an hour.

Parenting is hard enough. Why would I make it harder by filling our days with things to worry about being late for?

Embrace boredom

Parents are afraid of boredom. I get it. It’s unpredictable. It often feels safer to jump in and offer a suggestion than to wait and see what wild idea a toddler will cook up.
But I love my kids’ crazy ideas (usually), and that’s all boredom is, really: the space before the next idea. 

I want to raise children who are confident enough to look to themselves for the answer. Children who don’t come running to me for a solution, but who have been trusted with opportunities to have their OWN ideas and then given the freedom to carry them through.

While writing this, I’ve been half-watching the Bug toss a piece of ribbon with a clip tied to it (the final remnant of a birthday balloon) into a tree in our yard and then use a plastic garden hoe to knock it down. On one attempt, the hoe got stuck, so he swung the clip end of the ribbon to knock it down. Now, that happy accident has been incorporated into his game, which goes as follows: (1) find a branch the hoe will hang from, (2) knock it down with the clip, (3) continue throwing the clip into the tree until the ribbon gets stuck, and (4) use the hoe to pull down the ribbon. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. 

Sure, he was bored. For a moment. And then he solved his own “problem” in a way I never would have. 


Foster passion (and the drive that sustains it)

There’s this kid across the street who, I swear, materialized straight out of my side of every argument my husband and I have ever had about whether the Bug should be playing organized toddler sports. 

This kid – probably thirteen – is out in the front yard every afternoon, pitching baseballs at a cardboard box with the strike zone marked off in blue painter’s tape. He’s not riding in the car for an hour to a private pitching lesson; he’s walking home from school and throwing baseballs at a box. Sometimes he has a friend at bat. Most of the time, he’s out there by himself. Practicing. Practicing. Practicing.

Everyone I’ve told this to has laughed and remarked that his parents probably made it and force him to use it. But I’ve seen my three year old practice his own shots on goal in a diaper box in our yard, and I have to believe he’s not the only kid out there who will find a way to do what he loves, who will practice with no reward or accolade in mind but the satisfaction of improving at something he enjoys doing.


Invite wonder

From birth, there is a tremendous amount of pressure on parents to entertain and stimulate our children. We’re told that we have to provide our babies with brightly colored musical toys, flash cards, and near-constant interaction. Aside from being unnecessary (and, in my opinion, developmentally inappropriate), the idea of entertaining my children all the time felt like assertion that my thoughts and ideas are somehow better or more important than theirs.

Who am I to decide that gazing up at a tree isn’t “stimulating enough” and to interrupt the activity my baby has chosen to rattle a toy at him instead? As a newborn, the Bug could have smiled at trees all day, watching the light sneak between the leaves and cast shadows around us. He was a fussy baby, but could nearly always find peace on a blanket outside, gazing up in wonder. Now, at three, he still carries a torch for that first love and will find himself lost in observing the variation in color between the leaves, finding branches with suggestive shapes that remind him of letters or sports equipment, watching for bees and butterflies, tracing the sudden shaking of a branch back to the squirrel whose jump set it in motion, and asking eagerly, “Storm is coming?” when the wind rustles through the leaves. 

The tree may be the same, but he has grown and finds new mysteries beneath its shade, ones he wouldn’t have the time to ponder while being rushed out the door to soccer camp.

5 thoughts on “WHAT DO YOU DO ALL DAY? (and why I don’t sign my kids up for activities)

    1. We’re still deciding about school, Stephanie. We are leaning very strongly toward homeschooling (at least for early elementary), but if we decide to do school, I think we will put him in one year of preschool before kindergarten. It’s such a rigorous schedule that I think kinder would be pretty challenging first school experience.

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      1. If your reason for homeschooling is to give him the freedom to learn at his own pace, why not let him have that freedom at least until he’s 6? That’s the compulsory school age in CA. You can start with first grade at 6. Have you considered any democratic schools? http://www.educationrevolution.org/store/findaschool/memberschools/#California
        I’m in the same position as you are. I have a 3 year old and am leaning toward unschooling, but I would actually prefer a democratic school if I can find one close enough that I love.
        Hope this is helpful in your decision making! Good luck!

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  1. This is how I grew up, and this upbringing is what allowed me to be a creative, independent and intelligent adult who thinks for themselves. Unstructured play is the way to be – especially in childhood and then throughout life as much as possible.

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  2. Love it! I totally agree that people overstimulate kids and I love your statement anout boredom being an opportunity to be creative. Lids currently dont know how to handle boredom and that is why they are always on FB or ipads.

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