I feel like us parents have a fine line to walk. We all want what's best for our kids, but what is best for our kids? There are a lot of different ideas about how to raise kids and which methods are best. One concept in particular that has been getting a lot of media attention lately is structured vs. unstructured parenting. Why? Because while many empirical studies have suggested that structure in children's lives is important, many parents believe that allowing children to problem solve and dictate their own time is what matters most. Since long gone are the days of roaming the neighborhood on the way home from school until dusk, it seems that kids' schedules today are filled with piano lessons, sports clubs, tutoring, scheduled play dates, homework, reading time, family time, nap time and on and on and on. None of these are bad activities, but sometimes it seems to be a little intense.
Lets look at both sides of the coin. How does a strict schedule shape our kids and is it in their best interest? Growing up, I had many friends whose lives revolved around a strict and structured schedule. These schedules were definitely filled with wholesome activities like sports, clubs and studying - so it may come as no surprise that they often had better grades than me. And, in the long run, some of them make a lot more money than I do now. Goal accomplished, right? Depends on your goal. I personally think there is a lot more to life than earning a great wage. I believe that life is about experiencing new things and, above all, feeling joy in those new experiences! When kids live a strictly structured lifestyle they may develop a personality that makes it difficult to "roll with the punches" or they may learn to not trust their own instincts when making decisions. The individuals I knew that experienced a structured childhood grew into adults who, well, continued what they had always done. They keep strict schedules for schooling, training, working, and studying all in the name of success - but don't take a step back to think about what they want and what will make them happy! What happened to childhood?
Let's remember this though: structured households are beneficial in A LOT of ways. The studies are true that children need some structure and boundaries. They need to know what the rules are in order to feel safe in their environment. They need predictability. Within structure children can often learn the value of hard work, dedication, and the joy that comes with pursuing dreams. The problems come in when parents lose site of the reasons for structure (AKA boundaries, focused goals) and instead mistake busyness and unadjustable schedules for appropriate structure.
Ah, why can't we go back to the "olden days"? Where children had the basic rules - chores, sports teams, and homework - but then also had the freedom and safety to roam to their hearts content. You see, back when kids are allowed to entertain themselves and do what they wanted during their free time they were allowed to nurture their creativity, imagination and their senses of independence and wonder. Where would our society be without any of these traits? Unfortunately in today's world technology is where much of that free time has gone! When children roamed and played in the past they became engineers and inventors - learning to think outside the box and ask themselves "what if?", "how?", and a great one (that often got my brother into trouble) "what happens if I do this?". These are the kinds of behaviors and thought processes that truly allow us to accomplish new things and break down barriers and achieve new heights.
So, which is best? Should your children be so structured that they are 100% goal oriented? Or should they be allowed that freedom that we all once had (within safe limits, of course)? As you can see there are benefits to both styles - when used in moderation. Kids need structured activities, they need to learn discipline, respect and dedication. However, I would argue that because children get so much of this in their school environment be careful to not fill their time at home with more structured activities - maybe just do a few a week. And make those few truly count! If they love it then do it and make time for it! If you are a "planner" type of parent and you want the structure to stay on top of your world then (as crazy as it sounds) schedule in free-time or unstructured play time for your kids. Let them roam the neighborhood, within reasonable limits of course. Let them figure things out on their own. I know its hard (trust me - it is definitely hard to let your little ones out of your sight for even a minute!) but let them make mistakes; those are the lessons they learn the fastest and that stick with them the longest.
Please share your opinions on this subject even if you don't agree, I would love to hear your thoughts! I, too, am trying to do whats best for my kids. I also think that many parents out there could benefit from hearing from other parents on the same journey.
You can also check out a few previous posts we've done at The Baby Cubby on the importance of play from our blog, Play is the Highest Form of Research; and another parenting blog on how It's OK for Kids to Get Hurt.