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Friday, October 21, 2005

Life is about quality, not quantity. Organized classes expose kids to new stuff, but kids learn just as much through less structured, real-life activities. The park, playgroups, and trips to the store teach them about the world and about interacting with other people.

At the park, they learn about: Sharing (toys and snacks with other kids); Coordination (climbing around the play structure); Agility (dodging stray balls); Cooperation (waiting for a turn with the shovel). Through playgroups and play dates, they hone their social skills--which are the most important skills a kid needs for kindergarten. On special occasions when Father in Chief and I hire a babysitter, TIC learns about respecting other adults.

When he goes to pre-school, games, art, music, and story time will be a part of the structured schedule. And at the end of the day, he'll have some downtime with his toys. And I'll be thrilled that he knows how to be content at home.

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That's just it--going out to do all we do isn't something Son1 is forced to do, it's something he asks to do. About the only thing he's required to attend is preschool, because we've sunk enough cash in that place to fund a couple of sweet high-def flat-screens. (And since little kids shouldn't watch TV, those screens should go in the teachers' lounge. Ha! Thought you got me on that one, didn't you?)

I am a city person. (Well, a born-again city person, since I grew up in the burbs.) And city people live in cities because we want to be around lots of cool, heterogeneous stuff. We can do a half a million things, all at a quarter to three. So when Son1 wakes up on Saturday morning and scampers into our bedroom, I want him to ask, "What can we do today?" instead of "What's on?"

All these activities also help us figure out what he likes. We signed him up for a soccer class at the Y, and he hated it. (In his defense, it did suck.) He went to a musicianship class, and he was crazy about it. So we went back. And if going out means just strapping on the bike helmet and exploring the neighborhood (usually at an uncomfortably brisk pace while I run/stagger behind, warning pedestrians), then that's fine, too.

The key is moderation. If a child is overprogrammed, there are some standard telltale signs. And if he exhibits any, we'll encourage him to slow down. We'll stare at the walls, if we have to. I'll at least get a little more rest out of it.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

I don't think anyone would advocate that a parent stay in the house with their kid 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Everyone would go insane, and eventually there would be nothing left to eat or drink.

That said, it's nutty to have your kid so scheduled that they feel like they have to do stuff each and every day. Too much activity can stress your kids out. Giving your child just one, single hour of downtime per day--as Laid-Off Dad aims for--is just not enough. In our household, entire mornings often disappear while Toddler in Chief wanders from his "parking lot" of matchbox cars, to his bin of books, to squat by the window and marvel at the squirrel nibbling on a nut, or to wait for the next airplane to glide by in the distance.

Waiting, sitting, observing the world at a slow pace is a wonderful skill that I hope TIC has the luxury to hone throughout his lifetime. Being able to sit back and enjoy the world around us is a dying art, especially when we live so quickly that we can't remember what we did--on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday.

Eventually TIC's days will be filled with school, after-school programs, and a team-related activity that includes a uniform with a number stitched on the back. I'm not in any rush to wind him up to watch him go--it will happen soon enough.

Going to the museum, the zoo, swim class, or music class should not be a mandatory tick in the daily checklist. Living life at a slower pace makes those things a treat to be relived at bedtime and beyond. Those things are special, not required appointments.

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Sharing your daily life with your kids is a great thing—until they start to think for themselves. At that point, parents need to expand their children’s horizons beyond picking up the dry cleaning.

Let’s be frank, here. “Overprogramming” children is a problem unique to certain strata of society who have 1) discretionary income and 2) enough leisure time to spend it. It’s especially a concern in households where both parents work, because most psychologists will tell you that daycare is enough of a structured environment for anyone under 3. I intermittently fall into the first category, but my wife stays home with the boys. Therefore, we believe they should be exposed to a good deal of organized activity outside of the house—and not just because we love to leave our tiny, crap-infested Laid-Off Lair.

Getting involved in organized classes and clinics teaches kids to interact with different peers and authority figures, an important skill as they get ready to attend school. They also come in contact with much more language, which enhances their communications skills. If, for example, our kid takes a music class that ignites a lifelong passion, that’s just gravy. (Because let’s face it. Musicians get major babes.)

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Monday, October 17, 2005

When I became a parent, I retired my purse (for a massive diaper bag), my personal space, my sex drive, privacy, sleep, stain-free clothing, and a stretch-mark-free body.

What I got was an opportunity to teach my kid about the world, one boring task at a time. Toddler in Chief fits into my life the way my cell phone fits into the inside pocket of my diaper bag--snugly, the way it was intended. That means I do all the stuff I used to do, only I have a babbling sack of potatoes at my side.

When he was just a couple of months old, friends started taking their kids to music class, gymnastics, art class, Gymboree, mom and me yoga, swim class, and parent-child co-op programs, like Little Wonders. It was like they'd been programmed to believe that if they don't launch their kids into these structured classes, they'd miss out on critical learning opportunities.

The entire world is new to a baby! Banging on pots and pans to the beat of The Postal Service while I make dinner is probably better than the official and expensive music class. Plus I get dinner made, so benefits are two-fold. Some friends signed their child up for one or two weekly classes, which is a great way to get out of the house. Others booked themselves (ahem, I mean their kids) so heavily that they have a scheduled activity morning and afternoon every weekday, making it impossible to book a good, old-fashioned play date.

Too much structure is bad for parents because they will go insane carting the kids from activity to activity. It's bad for kids because they won't have time to explore their own imagination. Boredom is good for kids. I also believe that over-scheduling your child teaches them to be self-centered. If every day's schedule is dictated by the child's activities, then they will learn that the world has been built for their benefit and that mom is nothing but a cabby.

Toddler in Chief does what I do, and sharing my life with him is the most educational and rewarding class of all. He learns about the world because he's along for the ride, not in spite of that fact.

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The other morning, our son came into our bedroom and asked, “Mama, what do I have to do today?” And it gave us pause, because he’s only 3½. He’s way too young to be programmed into thinking he needs a PDA to keep all his appointments straight.

Kids need to learn how to just sit still and be for a few minutes at a time. Frankly, I’d love to set aside an hour each day for him to sit with a plain wooden block and let him decide what he wants to do with it—as long as he doesn’t draw blood or exceed 80 decibels.

That said, we’ve chosen to live in the greatest city in the world and to weather all the mayhem that entails. There are tons of things to do. (Literally: 247 metric tons.) So many tons, in fact, that Time Out New York recently opened a a separate magazine just for kids. We’ve got swim classes, music classes, petting zoos, parks, libraries, museums. Plus, our sons have lots of friends who live within walking distance, so it’s easy to make playdates and let the kids interact and/or run themselves silly.

What are we supposed to do? Sit on the couch and watch the cat lick herself?

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