Thursday, April 03, 2008

Having Fun is Always Optional

Do you require your children to participate in organized family activities and games when you're at home?

I don't. There is, of course, an ever-shrinking list of things that are forbidden: no helping yourself to Fruit Cremes from the pantry; no playing with the disposable razors. And there are, of course, certain behaviours that are mandatory: meals, baths, bed. Leaving the house is usually not optional, despite Bub's earnest assurances that "Nursery School is off today!"

When we're at home, though, in those hours between meals and bed, it's pretty much a free-for-all. I may not let the children watch Tarzan eight times, but I won't make them play Dora dominoes if they don't want to either. (I'll even accede to the Pie's sudden rule changes as we near the end of the game, where suddenly Dora and Boots become a match because they're friends.)

School is another matter. There, Bub is required to sit in a circle, listen to a story, or construct a craft. I'm glad they push him there to accept such requirements, to take turns when he's playing pick-up-sticks, to share the sharing toys with the other children. That, arguably, is precisely why I send him there.

But I've always felt that home is the place where your time is your own, where the leisure hours are up to you to fill. I can remember riding the bus home from a high-school field trip to New York City, my suitcase full of postcards and souvenirs, a Swatch watch, a Bloomingdales Beach Club nightie. I was keeping an anxious eye on my watch, silently urging the bus forward in the hopes of having a few Sunday evening hours to do nothing in that wonderfully productive way that you can do nothing at home after a trip jam-packed with visits to Saks Fifth Avenue and the Museum of Modern Art. I wanted to write in my diary, lay out my purchases and admire them, sort things and organize them - just to relive and process the trip in the privacy of my bedroom.

That's how I think of home for my children as well. I do try to create opportunities for my children to play in developmentally beneficial ways, but it's always up to them whether to join in. If we ever have a Family Game Night, participation will be strictly optional.

Bub's teacher thinks I should reinforce the gains she's achieving at nursery school by requiring him to participate in certain activities at home. I can see her logic, but I have an almost visceral reaction against the idea. However beneficial such activities might be to Bub, they violate my sense of the sanctity of home as the haven of the permissible, the place where there are many things you can do and nothing that you must.

What are the rules at your house? How often is it mandatory for your children to have fun?

47 comments:

Jess said...

I don't have kids so I can't answer your question from the practical standpoint. But I wholeheartedly agree with you that home is a place that is not supposed to be as regimented. It's good for kids to learn about rules and boundaries and requirements and social norms at school. But they also need open, unstructured time where they don't feel pressured, where they have time to relax, and where they can play freely and be as creative as they like. Home should not be looked at as a training ground for school.

Moondance said...

My house is like your house. You can do (or not do) whatever you want. It's the way I had it growing up, and I still think of home as the safe haven where you don't HAVE to do anything structured, unless you want to. besides, once you put in half day kindergarten, karate, swim class homework, dinner, bedtime ritual, and all the other non-optional activities, there is precious llittle time for the kids to just relax.

I'm in favor of that. Watching Owl use his imagination to make a stick into a light saber, or airplane throttle, or microphone is some of my best entertainment!

kyra said...

i love what you say here. in our house, it gets a bit tricky since we homeschool but i believe we preserve that feeling of home as haven, as a place of relaxation and safety.

Mimi said...

No!

We're fantastically rigid about enforcing a unstructured zone in our house :-) Yes, Munchkin gets enough programming at daycare. Here, we learn about how to get through a day gracefully, deciding as we go along (that said: we have morning and lunch and nap and evening routines. But what happens in the big blank spaces is freeeee)

call me mama said...

Growing up I was expected to be happy. Not skittish, grumpy, grouchy or any other such slighted emotion. In our house- though our babies are tiny- there are emotions! My mom freaks out on her visits. "Why are they so mad?" my mother pleads- "What does it mean?"
hmmm.

Becoming Me said...

Fun at our home is optional as well. I have a loose routine because I use to over schedule and almost lost my marbles. So now, I have mornings devoted to breakfast, cleanup, free play, learning time, and fun chore time. The afternoons I do make sure that my 4 year old takes a quiet time. But as far as games, I make suggestions but if she doesn't want to play a board game and would rather pretend a stick is a toothbrush (she DOES NOT put it in her mouth) and she's packing it for a slumber party, then I'm good with that.

Omaha Mama said...

I agree with you 100%. Home is home, school is school. I feel it is vital that children be able to handle themselves appropriately in unstructured time, as much so as during structured time. The first is often more challenging. There will be "free" time during public school days and by providing your kids with the opportunity of that type of time with the appropriate boundaries and rules, you are helping the progress he's making at school. It's complementary. I think kids need to be able to use their own imaginations and minds to entertain themselves. I'm repeating myself here, but I guess I feel strongly about how right you are. His teacher is slightly off. By providing him with boundaries, love and care, and the opportunity for down time, you are providing just what every kid needs.
So well done you. It would be totally different if your kids could grab what they want to eat, when they want, if they ruled your roost, if you set no expectations. But none of those things are true. I say keep up the good work!

Veronica Mitchell said...

I think you've struck upon the thing I hated above all others about youth retreats. Every moment was scheduled, and any attempt to not have "fun" with the group was viewed with suspicion and hostility by the adults. I longed for the freedom of doing nothing.

Lisa b said...

I am obsessed with reinforcing what is learned at school and I keep asking myself why I am making all of us miserable by doing so.
I have no idea and am now daydreaming about lazing around at your place.

Patois said...

Check all requirements at the door. Home is an elective course around here. The one exception is when I force one child to amuse another to grant me seven minutes of peace at a time.

Kelsey said...

I am usually a lurker, but I felt I had to comment on this post. Don't cringe, I'm not a hater!

I often feel like I should be creating more structure and offering more planned activities at home, but I just can't seem to bring myself to do so. We kind of move by the seat of our pants. I was totally flooded with relief when I read this. We don't hear otherwise, so I assume my daughter is doing just fine with the routines at school, why make things at home stressful when we're doing just fine going with the flow?

I never thought to put it in terms of a philosophy, but I do have similar feelings about things not being so mandatory at home.

painted maypole said...

i'm with you... outside of school and church there are very few things that HAVE to be done. which is why i love that MQ's teacher gives basically NO HOMEWORK. Who needs homework when you're 5?

Hairline Fracture said...

I completely agree with you. We have a loose routine and we go to playgroup and gymnastics once a week but I don't schedule "fun" activities because I'm no good at that. I was one of the kids who was allowed lots of free time and I loved it. Now I just want the kids to get old enough to entertain themselves so I can have some free time again! All kidding aside, I do paint or play games with them but it's up to them to decide what they want to do.

Swistle said...

We don't have forced fun, but we do have homework. That's what I'd call it if I were going to go along with what the teacher wanted here.

Angela said...

Good points and I quite agree

Mad said...

Amen. Amen.

Now I just with my daughter would let me have some unstructured time at home.

Jen said...

I don't know. I'm pretty unstructured and my kids have lots of free time to read or play or make up games or whatever. BUT, generally structured stuff is fun too, even when there's a little resistance. I mean, there's never any resistance to reading or games or the like. It's certainly different when they're in school full-time -- then it's vital to have carved out down time in the week.

So, I definitely don't think that every minute should be scheduled, but if the teacher is asking...I wonder if it wouldn't make the transitions easier? I mean, most teachers (not all, of course, there are some crazy ones out there!) don't want to have to bring up a topic, at all. So if they do, it's really because they see an opportunity being missed?

Playing games and having structured time shouldn't be a punishing thing, it should be a fun thing -- even if it comes with rules.

Jen said...

Unless you're talking about actual homework here? Some of the comments sound like you're supposed to be doing "schoolwork"?

One other thing that I just thought of -- sometimes our kids need different things than we need. I know that sounds really obvious, but as a parent, I think it's one of the hardest things to follow through on. That is, to do something to/for my kid that would really drive me batty. Or does drive me batty!

Oh, how I'm running on, one more ONE more -- I'm kind of surprised by the comments because my kids tend to be far more unscheduled than most other people's kids. Where are all you commenters in my real life?!

minnesotamom said...

My daughter has a pretty strict schedule (which she thrives on--she tells me exactly when she's sleepy and/or hungry, and it's pretty on the dot every day) as far as napping and eating, but other than that, we're pretty flexible. I'll probably just go with what she likes as she gets older. I don't want her to feel stifled or like she has to perform to a certain level--home should be a place where she can be herself and be relaxed, like you said. I'm not above a little playful learning, but if she says "no way," I can't imagine myself forcing her.

My mom says things like, "You have mommy wrapped around your finger, don't you?" and "If you were with me for a day or two, I'd break you of that habit" to my daughter (who is 7 mos. old, for crying out loud), and it drives me nuts.

I guess that's what makes her and me so different. When I take a vacation, I want to relax. When she takes a vacation, if she doesn't have something planned for EVERY MINUTE OF THE DAY she doesn't feel like she's "accomplishing anything." To which I say, isn't that the point?

Janet said...

We have no structure. I really encourage my kids to embrace the boredom. I feel like that is when they come up with the most creative games and imaginary play. Not that we don't play with them (and we have them enrolled in team sports and piano), but at home, we go with the flow. It works for us.

beth said...

We are pretty laid back around here. We do our share of activities and socializing, but outside of that much of our time is spent lounging in our pajamas (or nudie in the case of my 4 year old). I am also not opposed to TV. I do like to get the kids outside when possible, but otherwise I let them choose what they want to do. If they want help or want me to read a book I will, but I do not structure activities for them. They are old enough (2 and 4) to play together. Sometimes I feel guilty about not doing more, but then I watch what they do with this free time. They use their imaginations. They create new games together. To me it is the essence of childhood.

Merle said...

I agree with what Jen said. Some kids need different things from their parents. As a young child, my parents were pretty anti-social and they spent most weekends and nights doing thier own thing. As a result, my childhood days were very unstructured and I was allowed to do what I wished. But it was horrible!! I have a great deal of trouble structuring my life as an adult... as a kid it was hopeless and I was miserable.

On the parenting side... I often reguire GB to play stuctured activities like board games with me. Furthermore, he is not allowed to quit before the game is over nor is he allowed to cheat. I do this for both of us. He is quite slow to learn how to play by someone else's rules. One of his greatest challenges, when he starts school, will be to follow the teachers rules and complete seatwork. I understand that he gets structure at daycare. And don't misunderstand and think that all playtimes at home are structured becuase they are not. But adhering to structure is an important life skill: without it very little learning can take place. And I don't want to waste any time helping GB to grasp it.

nomotherearth said...

We are VERY unstructured around here (unless you think going to a coffee shop every day is structure...), because I feel the Boy gets his structure during daycare hours. I wonder if I would feel differently if he was home all day, every day, though.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I've found that if I'm too loose with my son for too long, he turns into a monster when I ask him to do the smallest thing -- like flush the toilet when he's done. Too long in this case is more than six hours; so on quiet weekends or holidays I try to remember, every two hours or so, to require something of him -- even if it's something small.

This only applies to the long, unstructured days off, though. If he's had 6 hours of school, then he can spend all his time until dinner staring at a blank wall if he likes!

McSwain said...

My house is like yours, and so was my childhood home. Even as a teacher, I HATE the way many teachers think they need to tell you what to do with your kids so they can "do better" in school. Which implies that there is nothing more important than school.

I come from a family of creative high IQ types. We've all done pretty well for ourselves as adults. I think the time spent pursuing what interested us was a part of what allowed us to follow our bliss as adults.

Good grief, who are these people that think that every second of children's time needs to be adult-led.

Beck said...

It sort of depends, I guess. Sometimes I have a craft waiting for them when they get home from school and if the Girl doesn't want to participate, I can get AWFULLY guilt-inducing... "That's all right. Don't worry about me going to all that trouble for you... all I did was give you the GIFT of LIFE."

Andrea said...

We are pretty unstructured, which suits both of us just fine, though I am trying to find more structured things to do--for her sake more than mine. She's such a social kid that she really enjoys and needs interaction with other people (besides me) on long days off, whereas I would be happy to spend htem on the couch with a book.

So in our house, it's Mummy who needs to reinforce hte lessons learned at school by following a routine at home.

metro mama said...

We let Cakes lead the way. I'm with you.

The only thing I will enforce--once she stops going to bed so early and we start having family dinner--is eating together and having conversation each day. I grew up in a family where we ate dinner on TV trays while we watched MASH every night, and that's not cool with me.

TEOM said...

When I look back, sometimes I wish I had instituted a version of Earth Hour - just once a week - where we all sat down and looked at each other and figured out how to have fun together. I think there might have been value in that. That said, it was pretty much a free for all around here.

Mamalooper said...

Totally with you on the unstructured/home time. I feel like I am in the minority at times as many of the other "just over two" like Monkeygirl have been in preschool now since last September. And many of their parents are all focused on how much their toddlers are "learning".

AnneK said...

I don't have any kids yet, so obviously I don't have an answer to your question. But growing up, it was like how you described. Family prayer and dinner together was mandatory. We had no concept of doing anything else together. I guess that is part of my culture. I would come down if there was something important, but a typical evening would be when everyone in the family was doing their own thing in their own space.

kgirl said...

In my house, there must always be fun. Always. And isn't brushing mummy's hair fun? Isn't watching Dora while I blog, fun?

No, in all seriousness, we're pretty loosey goosey with our time. I like to do activities because it keeps me from going shackwhacky, but I try not to be too much of a control freak while we're doing them. I just bought Candyland to play with Bee, and like Pie, her version of the rules are - creative. And just this morning we baked oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies, but Bee was allowed to pour, stir and sample as much as she wanted.

kittenpie said...

I'm with you on that - I mostly leave Pumpkinpie to her own devices or offer a certain play-together activity like playdough, but it's not a must.

I do keep thinking that gee, she'll be in kindergarten in the fall, maybe I should be doing more fine motor stuff with her like cutting or trying to draw her letters, but you know, it just doesn't seem like fun or all that essential. She's got time.

Carrien said...

Bwahahahahahahahah! How often is it mandatory to have fun? Oh my sides. The only things mandatory around here are the not fun things, that must be endured to get on to the fun things.

School time, bed time, clean up time, meal time, those are the mandatory things around here.

The rest is free play time. Okay, I do try and structure the play a little with habits like, put all of the play dough away before taking out the puzzles, and only take the blocks out after the cars are picked up off of the floor. But that's to help them get through clean up time later with very little grief.

THe only exception to this would be if we a have a fun trip planned, which isn't that often, and someone decides to be a sulky party pooper and say they don't want to come. IF other children have been looking forward to it, and there is no one at home for the party pooper to stay with, then they have to come. THey don't have to have fun, but they may not crap all over everyone else's fun. Period.

They usually end up having fun in spite of their determination not to.

the new girl said...

I love this post and your general sensibilities, Bea.

I agree and although my girl is still way young, I dread the day that she has to spend too much of her free evening time doing homework.

I'm all geared up for a fight with the school district and she's not even ONE yet. lol

Catherine said...

So, kind of off topic but - I was gone for a week, and now you're Bea? What happened?

Jenifer said...

I agree! We do play a lot of games here, but at ages 4 & 7 that is what they want to do. Dora Dominos - oh yes we still play that!

I generally let them do whatever they want while when we are at home and they never ever lack for ideas. Tonight was daycare and restaurant and generally if they are in the house they are off playing together.

For the same reasons we limit their activities and try to keep one weekend day free - we ALL need time to putter and go about our business.

Lady M said...

We'll play games as long as Q is interested. Which is why we get to letter "L" or "M" frequently and end up wandering off. Maybe I should start in the middle of the alphabet next time he wants to play with his letter cards.

JCK said...

I'm with you on being relaxed at home. You have a few mandatory things at home, but play time - open play time is the thing that he will remember.

Luisa Perkins said...

My situation is somewhat different, having five kids ages 14 to 3, with #6 arriving in June.

We have lots of structure precisely so that we can have lots of free time as well. I believe unstructured time is the key to creativity, and that there is all to little of that in today's overprogrammed society. But some stuff has to happen for our house to run smoothly.

Once chores, piano practice, and homework are done, the kids are on their own until dinner time. I'm not convinced my kids would call that structure 'fun,' but they know that it's just what we do.

We eat our meals together and have Family Scripture Study and Family Prayer every day. We have Family Night every Monday night, but I've never had to force anyone to be there in almost 15 years. It's something everyone anticipates.

My philosophy has always been to make home so fun that my kids will default to wanting to be there. I want it to be their haven, the place where they find refuge from the busy and often confusing outside world.

I think it's working; my kids are each other's best friends, but have lots of other friends as well. They are happy, healthy, and doing well at school. I can't complain.

Julie @ Letter9 said...

Well, since Evan's only 9.5 months old, I can't say there are a lot of rules -- no playing with the plugs is about the only one we really stick to. But I DO have rules for myself: I must get dressed every single day; I must brush my teeth before getting Evan up from his first nap. Staying home all day would make me VERY lazy if I didn't have such rules. : )

Bon said...

i grew up in an incredibly structured house - though there was certainly downtime and free play, and no forced game nights as it was just my mother and i, and she doesn't like games - behavior and compliance expectations were pretty high, and there were many things that it was simply "time" for, and i was expected to contribute and engage.

it was too much, a bit unbalanced, and i would have benefited from periods of just relaxing and hanging, something my dear mum still doesn't know how to do. but i did internalize some very socially useful skills from it, and am trying to find the balance between the haven and the expectations with O...mostly haven, but with some things that you are simply expected to do as a family.

the dragonfly said...

When my son (and possibly his future siblings!) is older, I want to have a "family game night" once a week. I loved that at my house growing up. But other than that...it's good to be able to have your own time, to do (or not do) whatever you want. :)

Aliki2006 said...

I can't imagine forcing my kids--especially L. who hates organized games--to sit and have fun in that way. T. loves those kinds of things, though, so if I were to suggest to her that we sit down and sing and clap hands she would love it of course.

We've been told many times to do "games" with L., to help work on his social skills but honestly he really doesn't enjoy them. Instead, we just let him bounce around, creating his own fun when he can and how he sees fit.

Bea said...

Aliki - This is exactly the issue I'm facing with Bub: if he isn't interested in playing a game, will forcing the issue create an opportunity for him to discover the joy of playing with others? Or will it just entrench his dislike of organized games?

bren j. said...

Mandatory fun. That seems like an oxymoron to me.

I'm still stuck on Swatch watch...do they still make those? Oh how badly I wanted one!

Susanne said...

You know, I often feel a bit bad about the fact that when we're all at hime we just do whatever we want, no games, no activities, no nothing, but your post made me realize again why we are doing this. We like unstructured time, all of us, and we don't have that much. Even our son who is in kindergarten for about seven hours a day cherishes the time he can spend alone with his toys and with his parents.