On weekdays, my son Felix hits the wall at five o’clock. It’s cocktail hour, when the afternoon slips into evening and stomachs begin grumbling about what’s on the dinner menu; it is a daily transitional time for everyone, I imagine. For my little 6-year-old, it’s when his tone ratchets up a notch from cute alto to piercing whine. If we haven’t finished his homework by this point, forget it! He’ll make simple mathematical mistakes, forget grammar lessons we covered weeks ago, and regress—minute by agonizing minute—back into a nursery school state of mind.
A big challenge is that at this stage in his development, Felix isn’t always cognizant of his needs. Especially at five o’clock, when he’s mentally, emotionally, and socially drained—he just doesn’t know what to do with himself. One minute he’ll complain of being tired, the next he’s running around the kitchen at full speed yelling, “Tickle me, please!” He’ll hear kids outside and want to join them. Then he’ll mope around, saying no, actually, he doesn’t want to do anything except watch TV.
This manic state of mind is one I’m very familiar with. Felix doesn’t just look like a miniature version of me; he has the same energy too. We’re introverts, but highly social ones. I enjoy late nights out with friends, conversing and maybe seeing a movie or going dancing, but then I require a few restful days at home, restocking my mental larder. Similarly, Felix loves going to school and spending time with his peers. His teachers report that he’s an energetic, talkative, and engaged member of the class, trying hard to be kind and connect with others. But this expenditure of verbal energy and charisma takes a toll on him, and so I have to carefully orchestrate our schedule after school to avoid 5 PM meltdowns.
When I pick him up from school, I enter a chilly auditorium echoing with the chatter, giggles, cries, and occasional screams of children. Some go off in pairs, headed for playdates. Others amble to the yard to run around or leave in a rush for sports. Always, they’re talking, discharging an aural smog of verbiage from their ever-moving lips. Felix, though, waits in his seat, smiling but silent. He slips his hands in mine and says, “Let’s go home, Dad.”
(Except at least once a week when he’ll instead say, “It’s a great day for getting some ice cream!” He is 6, after all.)
These days, many American kids keep a very adult-like schedule. “What are you doing this weekend?” I’ll ask friends with kids, and they’ll list to-dos and obligations, many of which are more for their children than for them. The weeknights can be just as packed. Homework, which even first-graders get in a significant amount, happens late at night. Kids are always on the go. The lonely, boring after-school hours I remember as a child are, by and large, a thing of the past.
Not for my son, though. He requires the same kind of slow, peaceful, and calming space I needed, and still need, as an introvert—moments to rebuild his social foundations, to fortify his patience and attention span. When he has this buffer zone, we don’t have to remind him to “use his words,” or “remember his manners,” or “say that again, without whining” at any point in the evening.
In fact, Felix has become uncannily predictable. I can usually tell when I’m going to hear a report from his teacher at pick-up that begins, “Today we had to remind Felix about being a good friend…” Those come on the mornings when he sits down for breakfast still raccoon-eyed and grumpy from the previous night, his socializing resources exhausted before he’s even left the house.
So, after school, instead of having a packed schedule, we’ll head home for a snack. I’ll read aloud to him, and then we’ll do homework: daddy-and-son tasks which he enjoys doing. Finally, as dinner approaches, the activities become more and more passive and solitary—reading, drawing, building blocks, half-an-hour of television. He hits the hay early, and we start the whole thing over the next day.
I’ll admit, sometimes I feel a sense of pressure that I’m not providing him with enough social activities or enrichment. He and I spend a lot of time together, and we always have—I’ve been home with him full-time since his birth. So, last week, when, at the spur of the moment, he decided to take a free acrobatics class for kids offered by a local gymnastic studio, my wife and I motivated ourselves to get him there even though it took place at the five o’clock quiet hour.
“What did you think?” I asked him when his mother brought him home an hour later.
“It wasn’t for me, Daddy,” he said.
“Do you want to try it again next week and see if you like it better?”
“Nah. I like hanging out here. Making sure my homework is done. Taking it easy.”
“That’s my boy,” I thought. He’s on the road to self-awareness. I see him turning into a wonderfully sensitive, creative presence in the world, who recognizes that sometimes—especially at the end of a long day of learning—the best thing for him is restorative solitude. As a parent of an introvert, I am responsible for making sure he has those needs met. I must set in place a routine that teaches him that there’s nothing wrong with moving slow and being alone; on the contrary, those are essential strategies for a thoughtful, compassionate mind to survive in our high-speed ever-connected social world.
I’m confident he will have plenty of opportunities to take on after-school obligations as a young adult, when he’s more aware of his needs and better able to make sure they’re met. For now, he’s a child who likes peace and one-on-one time with his dad, and it’s my job, and pleasure, to make sure he gets it.