Monday, October 18, 2010

The Overextended Toddler

When Elana was six weeks old I introduced her to my 17-year-old cousin.  After appropriately oohing and aahing over her spit up and gas-induced smiles, Alex asked me "What activities are you going to sign Elana up for when she's two?"  At that point I hadn't thought much past getting Elana to sleep in three-hour stretches, so I responded "Oh, you know, the normal- toddler pageantry and opera lessons, but if she shows an aptitude for curling, I'll enroll her in that too."

Then a few days ago, someone wrote in to my parents' group asking where to buy a swim suit for her 2-month-old daughter who was about to start swim lessons.  Seriously?  Swimming lessons at two months old?  At two months the child is just beginning to see beyond black and white objects, she is just barely able to follow your voice; does she really need to learn how to blow bubbles now? I began thinking about the variety of opportunities we now are able to provide our young ones, and whether these were a positive addition to our parenting.
Elana and friends at ballet.  It is really just an opportunity to wear tutus.
(Photo courtesy of Karin Asensio.) 
Here is just a sampling of the class options for a 3-year-old in San Francisco: hula, ballet, hip hop, tap, body movement, young zoologist, art, soccer, swimming, tennis, toddler yoga, circus training, karate, tae kwon do, music, drumming, taiko drumming, cooking and baking, Spanish, and Mandarin.  I don't know about you, but I certainly don't want to teach a group of six preschoolers beating drums or how to make marinara.

Many of these classes are upwards of $20/class and quite a few families shuffle their 18-month-olds off to three or four classes a week (swimming, dance, music, and gymnastics).  If a child takes four $20 classes per week, these parents can be spending nearly $4,000/year on classes for an 18-month-old!  Is all of this good for the child? What about some good old-fashioned rolling-in-the-mud time?  I know that it would be completely taboo to stick them in a playpen for a half an hour, but how about some quiet play time in their rooms, is that acceptable?  Or maybe just head to the local playground for an hour?

Moreover, how many times have you seen a parent drag their screeching tot into the gymnastics, ballet, or swimming class.  The kid obviously doesn't want to participate, but her parent sure do.  Ted and I are often those parents.  For a few months Ted took Elana to Saturday morning soccer class.  On most days he would have to promise her an ice cream cone to get her to step both feet onto the field.  Once she got past the warm-ups, Elana would then spend the rest of the class playing with the colored cones and picking pieces of fake grass off the Astro Turf.  On the other days she plainly refused to go, screaming bloody murder when he tried to tie her shoe laces.
Elana "playing" soccer.  I think that this photo is the only time she actually interacted with the soccer ball.
Of course we all want our children to find their special talents.  So, I ask myself, is the primary job of a parent to give our kids every possible opportunity to prove themselves geniuses, or is it our job to make them self-sufficient and confident citizens?  I'm not sure that we can do both at the same time.  When we engage them with constant stimulation and organized activity, how will they learn to play on their own?

Child development specialists agree.  While most are pro parent/child free-play classes, many have spoken out against the structured activities that pressure the child to learn.  In short, the run around the toddler gym playing with balls and trampolines is great, while the one hour Mandarin lesson with flashcards and homework, not so much.

Maisy at art class.  The teacher tried to convince me that her painting was special and that she had true talent.  I disagreed and promptly recycled it at home.
Recently a mother asked a local parenting group for advice on how to help her almost 2-year-old begin reading.  Her reasoning being that "he just loves books so much".  Many other parents replied eager to learn how to make their toddlers literate.  Again the experts caution that this is not beneficial to the child.  At this age, kids should be learning to run, play, draw, and throw wild tantrums to get their wishes; they do not need to learn how to contract cannot to can't, or delve into the differences between there, their, and they're.  And honestly, do we really want to spend hours and months teaching them phonics when we could be spending that time ignoring them at the playground?  Do we really need them to be baby geniuses?  My kids seem pretty content looking at books, turning pages, and occasionally soaking them in the bathtub.

Besides overextending our children, we are overextending ourselves.  At the end of the day I find myself lacking downtime where the kids play in the backyard, and I pretend to listen to them while quietly playing Backgammon on my iPhone.  I long for the summer days when I didn't have to awake Elana at 7:30 to drag her out of bed kicking and screaming, force-feed her breakfast, and bribe her to get dressed and out the door to get her to school by 8:45.  Maisy and I then have a few hours to run errands, hit the playground, and eat lunch, before picking Elana up and rushing home for nap time.  By 3:30 I must wake the kids to get them to dance class, or a play date, by 4:00.  At 5:30, I dash home to make dinner, feed, bathe, and put them to bed so that Ted and I can have a few hours to ourselves.  At this point, Ted often wants to spend "quality time" with me, but I am so mentally and physically exhausted that all I really want to do is plop on the couch and watch an episode of 30 Rock.

How do we fix this and get back to the olden days where kids played like kids and adults carefully ignored them?  I'm not sure how, and I'm not sure if I want to put in the effort.  In all honesty, I am a bit afraid that without the activities I could be left having to entertain the kids myself!

Just out of curiosity, while reading Dr. Seuss's There's a Wocket in My Pocket with the girls I pointed to a page and asked them what it said.  Elana replied with authority, "Corte unde boom.  That's Spanish."  Maisy replied, "Blue Elmo".  I guess they aren't going to join Mensa anytime soon.


  1. I was a nanny in the Twin Cities on mpls/ St. Paul. I would take my nanny kids to several kid activities! But that was mostly to make the time go faster! now that I have my own, I want the time to go slower. But yet, I miss those fun classes sometime. But lucky me moved to a really small town - where ECFE is the only option. and I am so glad. If there were more options, I just might take them.

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