Kids, Like Parents, Just Can’t Have It All


(From the August 2013 issue of Merrimack Valley Parent)

By Michelle Xiarhos Curran

As parents, most of us want our children to have full and engaging lives, to have experiences that we may have never had. We want them to explore their interests and eventually find their niche. We want them to have fun and learn and grow, to be good at something, and enjoy doing it. We want them to gain the life skills they’ll need to live happily in this ever-changing world.

But we also want them to play outside, because we know it’s good – not to mention necessary – for them. We want them to come up with their own games and ideas, to entertain themselves instead of whining about boredom when there is no organized activity – or mobile device – to keep them busy. We want them to be happy and carefree and twirl in circles in the back yard under the shining sun. We want them, well, to be kids. Essentially, as parents, we want them to have it all.

But how do you know when you have achieved equilibrium? And does that even exist? Or is it an elusive wisp of a thing that slips through your fingers just when you thought you finally had it right?

As a parent to three children, ages 8, 4 and almost 2, it’s only recently that I have had to pay closer attention to that delicate balance between too much and not enough, to finding that sweet spot of extracurricular activity that’ll keep my kids involved but not worn out, enriched but not overtaxed.

The whole process of finding that balance, however, can be emotionally, physically and financially taxing – not to mention maddening when you add in the slew of outside factors that can cause even the most sane and rational of parents to balk at their own instincts. There’s the pressure to make sure your child is keeping up with his peers, the built-in parental guilt that, no matter how hard you try, you’re never doing quite enough, and the recurring thoughts in the back of your mind that your child might just be a prodigy at something, if only you could help him figure out what that something is.

Our oldest started with baby music classes. Later, it was soccer, a sport all the other kids were doing. I think he was 3 years old, right around the time we started paying tuition for preschool. He took to it right away.

But from the moment we found out our first-born was to be a boy, we knew he would play hockey, or at least my husband, a former college hockey player, did. (And if he had turned out to be a she, well then she likely would have tried hockey too.) So after some skating and basic skills lessons, we plunked down the money for our son to play and crossed our fingers. He was 5. He loved it. And he still does, rigorous schedule, intense competition and all. And he’s having fun. We all are.

But hockey put an end to soccer, a sport he still thinks about wistfully when he plays with his dad in the back yard. While some of his young friends were managing both, we told him he had to make a choice. I certainly wasn’t going to be one of those moms. I wasn’t going to schedule my son so that his only free time consisted of snacking in the car between activities.

But then came karate, another sport that requires a hefty time commitment. We signed him up for the discipline and focus that martial arts can teach; he wanted to wear a ghi and learn to break boards with his bare hands. Other moms looked at me with a mix of sympathy and incredulous doubt. Good luck, they said. Hockey and karate don’t mix. There’s just no time. We’d either be freezing our butts off at the rink or stuck inside the dojo dodging front two-knuckle punches.

But between myself and my husband – who coaches the hockey team – we manage with little trouble except the occasional frenzy of making it from one place to the next, changing out of a ghi into hockey pads on the fly. And littering the car with Goldfish crumbs.

This year, our middle child has also started taking karate, a small detail that complicates things, but just a little. And last year, our oldest added lacrosse into the mix, an activity that starts up just as hockey – a sport with a seemingly never-ending season –  is winding down. But then there’s all those things that are on his bucket list that we just have no time for: Boy Scouts, guitar lessons and learning Spanish. We are discovering, as parents, that none of us can truly have it all. More importantly, we’ve come to the liberating understanding that we wouldn’t want to.

As summer – that last bastion of freedom – winds down, thoughts turn to the fast approaching fall and the start of school, to ramped-up schedules and homework and chilly weekend mornings at the rink.

And as daunting as that all might sound, we have just begun to discover that finding our way to happiness is about making choices, a lesson we are all learning together as a family, because as a family, one person’s decisions affect us all.

The delicately balanced scales are still holding steady. So far. But soon, they will start to tip, and we’ll need to do something to restore the equilibrium. It doesn’t correct itself. Eventually, we may have to let things go. Maybe that’ll be next year, when our middle son is eligible to start hockey. Maybe it’s in two years, when our youngest, a girl, wants to sign up for soccer, dance or learn to play the drums.

Maybe it’s when my husband or I decide that our interests will take center stage. I doubt that, but maybe.

But what will most definitely bring things to a screeching halt is if any of these extracurricular activities take away from the things that are most important: responsibilities, enjoying life and spending time together as a family, exploring new things and sometimes – just sometimes – living life outside of a rigid time schedule.

Right now, my boys are outside drawing in the dirt patch at the side of our yard, pretending it’s a road in an ancient city. I catch them doing things like this sometimes. Role-playing with Legos or writing a story or having a picnic on the family room floor with their baby sister. They still have time to play with their best friends. Sometimes, they even have time to just sit around and do nothing. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s how it is supposed to be. And so long as there’s still time for nothing, I know that we’re doing alright.

Michelle Xiarhos Curran is a freelance writer and mom of three in Newburyport.  Visit her website at