Saturday, February 14, 2009
Do you have her on a schedule yet?
Just like "does she sleep through the night?" and "is she a good baby?", this is one of the most inevitable and annoying questions that parents get. You see, having your baby on a schedule means you're in control and apparently, in the eyes of society, if you don't have your baby on a schedule you are spoiling her and letting her run your life.
I'm a Type-A personality. I like being in control. I could easily have translated that into a parenting style that involves strict parent-led schedules for my kids. I could have picked up Ezzo's Babywise and Hogg's Secrets of the Baby Whisperer at the bookstore and used a combination of Outlook and spreadsheets to plan every aspect of my baby's life. I could have ensured that my kids stayed in line. That they knew who was in control. And others would have praised me for it, for my success at exerting my authority and not letting the baby run my life. But that isn't what I want for my kids and the fact that society wants that signifies to me another place that we have gotten off track.
Using a schedule for a baby or a child is a way of achieving short-term goals with regards to a child's behaviour. Unfortunately, I don't think that people have thought through the long-term consequences of parent-led schedules. This is true of both baby schedules (feeding times, sleep times, play times, etc.) and over-scheduling of older children (on top of school, there is hockey, ballet, piano lessons, gymnastics, soccer, French tutor, Sunday school, and so on).
But why are schedules bad? What are some of the repercussions?
There are a number of reasons that schedules can be detrimental, including:
- Don't take individual needs into account: Not every baby or child is the same and every baby and child will go through periods (e.g. growth spurts, developmental milestones) where their needs are changing. Parent-led schedules do not take this into account. Instead they assume that the needs of every baby can be met in the same way all of the time.
- Dangerous for breastfeeding: Putting babies on a schedule can be especially detrimental for breastfed babies. It can lead to failure to thrive if the baby is not feeding frequently enough and can result in the mom's milk supply decreasing and not being able to meet her baby's needs. The American Academy of Pediatrics put out a media alert to affirm this point due to the proliferation of baby scheduling advice in books and the media. For more information see Right on Cue: Can You Breastfeed on a Schedule?
- Stifles creativity and sense of self: Kids need free play time to develop their imagination and creativity. If kids don't have this free time to themselves they aren't able to develop their own personality and figure out who they are. Their life ends up being about ribbons, tests, and competitions instead of being about thinking, imagining and developing a personality.
- Makes kids inflexible: Babies and children that are put on strict schedules come to depend on those schedules. It makes them very inflexible. With babies, staying out an hour past their bedtime can result in a major breakdown and throw their sleep off for a week or more. With older kids, they can get upset if their schedule gets disrupted or needs to be changed. This is something they can carry forward into adulthood and they can have difficulty adapting to changes or new environments. They do not learn how to make decisions on their own or take risks.
- Gets in the way of family time: For a lot of families every weeknight and every weekend is taken up juggling various activities. Dad takes Johnny to hockey practice while mom takes Jane to swimming lessons. Dad and Johnny grab a quick bite at a burger joint on their way to Johnny's piano lessons. Mom gives Jane a sandwich to eat in the car on her way to ballet. Between each kid's activities and play dates and the errands that the parents need to get done in between them, there is little or no time for the family to just hang out. No time for an afternoon at the beach, a lazy family brunch at home where everyone pitches in, a family meal in the evening at home. These things get forgotten and deprioritized in the shuffle.
- Can be stressful for parents: Even if a baby's schedule is parent-imposed, the parents can later end up feeling trapped by it and have difficulty planning around set nap times, bed times, and feeding times. With older kids, it can be stressful for the parents trying to keep up with the busy schedules of their kids, including driving them to and from activities, organizing uniforms and equipment, planning meals around them, and so on.
So if schedules are bad, what should we be doing instead?
For most people, having some scheduled activities is inevitable and just part of life. But there are some strategies you can employ to make it more manageable and minimize the negative impacts.
- Use a sling: With babies, using a sling meant that I could follow my baby's cues without becoming a slave to them. I went about my day doing the things that I wanted to do and she just came along in the sling, slept when she needed to sleep and nursed when she needed to nurse. Just because your baby isn't on a schedule doesn't mean you are a martyr. You juts need to find a way to harmoniously meet your baby's needs on cue while continuing to live your own life.
- Be organized: I think it is worth mentioning that being organized and having a schedule are two different things. I like to be organized and being organized makes it easier to assess the impact of changes to plans and ensure that I don't forget anything important. Game Theorist posted about using a Google calendar to keep track of family activities and while I hope that our lives don't ever get that complicated, I think the idea of keeping a family calendar is a good one.
- Schedule unstructured play time and family time: Kids need time to play in an unstructured fashion and families need to spend time together. If you do have a busy schedule and it is unavoidable, at least build time for these things into the schedule. For example, block off Saturday afternoons and agree that it will be used for a family activity. Agree that Monday, Wednesday and Friday everyone eats dinner together. Kick your kids out of the house and get them to just play outside, with sticks and rocks, with mud and grass, and let them be kids. Stop at the park on the way home and just kick the ball around or lie down and stare at the clouds. Plan an evening of boardgames for the whole family.
- Don't forget your activities: When creating schedules for their babies or their children, parents sometimes forget about themselves. Other than work, their live devolves into being a chauffeur and short order cook. If your family is booking activities, stake a claim for yourself and book in a team sport, a regular visit to the gym, a bike ride, or a coffee date with a friend and give it the same priority as your kids' activities.
- Look for things you can do together: Try to find activities that parents and kids can be involved in together, such as mom and tot yoga or going for bike rides or taking a cooking class. Consider whether there are things you can teach your child yourself. I will be teaching my kids to swim and skate myself, rather than signing them up for lessons.
- Wherever possible, go "free range": A number of books, articles and bloggers are coming out that suggest we should stop the paranoia and hyper-parenting and just let our kids be kids. This article Free-range children in Macleans magazine and the blog Free Range Kids are great places to start if you are exploring this concept.
We have so far avoided the urge to schedule our kids lives. Our friends have signed their kids up for gymnastics, swimming lessons, hockey, language classes, music classes and so on. I know our day is coming too and I do plan on having our kids involved in some activities (of their choosing, not mine), but I do hope to keep it in check so that we can keep being a family and they can keep being kids.