By no means should anyone romanticize a pandemic, but there's one thing I miss about lockdowns: the sweetness of an unscheduled day.
As a family, we strolled around the block every evening. Searched for toads in the window wells. Cooked more. Rediscovered board games. Embraced surprise and joy in smaller moments.
But after the world opened up, pre-COVID norms came calling. I'm back in Scattered Parent Mode, shuttling kids to soccer and T-ball five days a week, scrambling to scare up dinner after work, and feeling more antagonistic toward my teeming calendar. My kids complain when they go a single day without a playdate with their friends.
As such, I've become more cynical about my family's ability to learn the obvious: Has COVID-19 taught us nothing about the importance of slowing down?
If you're familiar with the term "revenge travel" — the concept of making up for lost time by booking vacations with a pent-up ferocity — maybe this is the summer of revenge overscheduling. Many of us can't say no to social invitations, perhaps fearful that these opportunities for human connection might slip away from us once again.
But when we overcommit our kids, the reasons are even more complex. And parents are not the only ones who feel the effects. Researchers have found that overscheduling can be sources of stress and lead to burnout for kids. It also leaves them with an unrealistic expectation that every day they will be magically entertained.
Pam Lobley remembers the night her son broke down crying at bedtime, lamenting that he "never had time to play."
Mind you, this was coming from a 10-year-old whose existence entailed baseball, soccer, basketball, chorus, piano, Boy Scouts, enrichment classes and band. Wasn't that play?
But it dawned on Lobley that she was thinking of play as an adult would. It was not self-directed or spontaneous.
"That tuned me into what is play, and how it's been programmed out of our children's lives. I think we just don't value it as a society," she told me.
I reached out to Lobley, a writer based in New Jersey, because she authored the book, "Why Can't We Just Play? What I Did When I Realized My Kids Were Way Too Busy."
Well, here's what she did: She canceled her kids' activities and re-created an old-fashioned summer, one in which her two boys could stay in their PJs until 11 a.m. as they played Legos and watched cartoons, and then hit the town pool or the playground. Sort of like my childhood summers. (When Lobley and her boys opted for the playground, however, a playdate had to be arranged ahead of time — because kids in the neighborhood were busy with, you guessed it, activities.)
How did it go?
"They were happier that summer," she said. "That doesn't mean that they weren't bored and whiny sometimes. But I regarded that as productive boredom."
They donned capes and had swordfights in the backyard. Lobley learned to shift the burden of responsibility back onto them for finding their fun. She also got to know her kids a little deeper as people, which helped in choosing wisely in the future when signing them up for activities.
I'll grant that complaining about an overscheduled life is akin to griping about losing one of your AirPods, or when the barista forgot your request for almond milk, please. It's a first-world problem that many families only wish they could have. Likewise, the ability to execute a simpler summer is a privilege, as well.
Yet I do feel this self-imposed tension. While I don't want my children to become entitled, I do want them to create memories. I want them to find their spark. I want them to discover interests they can cultivate for the rest of their lives, maybe because I don't have many hobbies of my own.
"I am caught up in the 'They're only young once' mind-set," my friend said. "We don't get these years back, and they fly by." That's been especially true these past couple of years. Our kids will never get a second chance at second grade.
In some parenting circles, there's some pushback to the notion that kids are overbooked. Activities are a must for working families who need child care when school is out. And clubs and sports are of course preferable to endless hours of screen time and zero socialization — another reality for many families during the pandemic. Also, children with ADHD, for example, may benefit from structure and knowing ahead what the day entails.
Maybe what many of us need is guidance as we search for a balance between structure and downtime.
My editor asked if there was anyone still hanging onto the old rhythms of lockdown. I thought for a minute and realized I do know one charming family on my block that appears to be forever changed. They take walks every evening after dinner, like a scene from a Norman Rockwell picture, the mom in her flowy dress cradling her baby, while dad pulls a boy in a wagon and helps their third child steer his bike.
We always wave hi — through the windows of our car, on our way to T-ball.