Sunday, January 31, 2010

Crowding Out

Children's lives are highly scheduled, with school and extra-curricular activities dictating where they need to be and what they need to be doing at pretty much any given moment in time.

The amount of homework a child has each week is, not surprisingly, directly proportional to the amount of programmed activities in which they participate. In an effort to get parents more involved, just about everything children are involved with involves some form of homework.

All this homework is well intentioned. It's too easy to put a kid in a bunch of extra-curricular activities to make them "somebody else's problem" for a few hours each day so a parent can pursue some other interest. And it's fair to say that many parents are practicing a form of "outsourcing," expecting that their child's education, spiritual development, or musical training is fully the responsibility of a contracted party. Clearly, that is an irresponsible expectation, and homework helps to reset the balance.

All told, when we sign our children up for things, we're committing them for both time they'll spend in an activity, and time they'll spend on the activity.

Independently of this, the days are short in the winter months, so there's only small windows of time each day to enjoy the season.

The net effect is that spontaneity is crowded out. The ability to do something like ski or sled is constrained by the need to keep pace with everything else they're signed up to do. What initially seemed a sustainable pace of activities quickly becomes what runners call fartlek training: sudden sprints in the middle of a sustained run.

In a highly scheduled life, the conspiracy of convergence is inevitable. The rescheduled music lesson, the irregularly scheduled basketball game, the religious education study, the choir lesson, a birthday party and a school project will all need to fit in the same weekend. Add to this a travel schedule that has you away from home several days a week, and you soon discover that your interactions with your child are substantially framed, if not outright dictated, by somebody else.

Compound this with extraordinarily beautiful weather for ice skating, and the sense of constraint is overwhelming. You're left lamenting the lost opportunity to do something unique during the season, more than feeling a sense of accomplishment for having executed so many things in a pre-programmed schedule.

A profound sense of loss may be merited. Harry Eyres, writing in the Weekend FT, commented on how his earliest memories of winter shaped his expectation for what winter is like. As Mr. Eyres points out, the experiences of the season are critical moments of our experience of life, be it walking on a frozen river Thames, moving about in snow as deep as you are tall, or self- and community-reliance to share food and shelter when transportation and technology fail in the face of the elements.

These experiences are, in a highly-programmed world, exception to the rule. Indeed, a significant cold snap or heavy snowfall is seen more as an encumbrance than a reason for celebration. But just as banking had rules that mattered not when the governing principles no longer held true with the onset of the credit crunch, so, too, is the fragility of this programmed existence exposed in the face of a hostile yet still curiously sustaining world. Our programming functions only in this bubble, and the bubble doesn't provide for our needs.

The more we program our lives, the further and fewer between the opportunities to connect with and embrace the world outside our bubbles. We have to always remember that our children may not truly fathom the fundamental subservience we have to the Earth. The Earth sustains us far more than we impose any form of management over it. Helping our children develop that appreciation - even at the expense of their programming - is an obligation we have as parents.

And on perfect winter days, it's a highly liberating one at that.