Why Slowing Down Your Kid’s Schedule Can Be A Good Thing

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.

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  • Heather Daigle Carter

    Wonderful piece! I can relate in many ways. I too have a 6 year old son who loves being home and needs to be home and have his down time. When talking to other parents I often feel guilty for not having my son in clubs or sports, but after reading this article I now know that I have nothing to feel guilty about. My son is happy, loves to be home with his family, and knows that is what he wants and I really wouldn’t want it any other way!

  • Richard Bondy

    I love this piece, especially because I can hear a perceptive dad who is tuned into his son’s personality and needs. How wonderful that you are watching and considering who he is so that he himself can learn and thrive.

    I spent a lot of time with my first-born (daughter) as we went to and from school together (where I taught and she attended pre-school). I especially enjoyed these opportunities to observe her behavior and moods before and after school and, by getting to know her, help her learn to know herself. Then together, we could choose strategies to handle the rough times and to enjoy the good ones.

    I also strongly agree that many children are over-scheduled and that there are tremendous benefits in providing them with down-time and in simply spending time with them. And kudos for teaching him the value of “restorative solitude”!

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  • space2live

    We’ve done the same thing with our 3 kids. They are much happier and more content when they have downtime after school. They are teens now and do participate in sports but not every season. They have time to be with their friends after school and just be. The hard part is finding friends who are free to ‘hang out’. They are all so scheduled up. Keep on doing what you’re doing. I know it’s worked well for me (an introvert, writer, HSP) and my sensitive and introspective children.

  • Elizabeth Westra

    I remember the evenings I spent as a child after school, often reading and sometimes playing outside with friends. Back then, first graders didn’t have homework, so could do what they wanted after school. We had plenty of time to read, play outside or just lay in the grass and wonder what the clouds looked like. I also remember when I had piano lessons right after school. It was a disaster. I got very tense whenever I had too much to do without my alone time to think about things or read a good book. I think kids nowadays are over scheduled with too many things to do and places to be. They don’t have the time just to knock around the neighborhood with other neighborhood kids or to do nothing except daydream.

  • Rachel Coy

    I did the whole after-school madness with my children when they were small, and I think it had a bearing on my having a breakdown due to depression. We moved afterwards and we decided as a family that being together was more important than rushing around joining clubs. We are a family of introverts and we need that quiet time at home just to “be”. I wish I had realized that before I found myself swept along with other people’s expectations.

  • I remember when my now 17-year-old high school student speaking with a sports coach on the phone when he was in the 9th grade. I listened to him quietly, yet confidently, turn down invitations to try out. The coach was relentless and my son just kept declining with reasons why. He had older brothers who were star athletes in high school and at one point he told the coach that he wasn’t like his brothers and he didn’t have the same passion for sports that they did. Finally he said what his interests were and how he liked to spend his time outside of the classroom and on the weekends. And his reasoning was built around his need for solitude, quiet, peace and self discovery. It took a lot of courage to do that, especially when most of his friends were transitioning from middle school into the high school world of sports. My 22 year-old son is also an introvert, and when he started preschool he began the practice of finding a place of quiet solitude when he came home. I would usually find him in the back of a deep closet with a headlamp and all of his art supplies. He would just say that he needed a place to ‘be me’.

    I think it’s also important to set up expectations for voices, behaviors and activities in the home that allow children to see and experience it is a place for love, comfort, safety and quiet from the outside world. All of my sons were very, very physically active and we were fortunate enough to live in a warm dessert climate for many of their childhood years. I worked at helping them to differentiate between play and noise and rambunctiousness outside, and then the opposite inside. They really loved this, and I was also setting them up for the expectations they would meet when they started school.

    To date, I can barely be around, or watch, the goings on of parents and children. I’m not sure why our society thinks its so important, and now ingrained into our cultural expectations, to fill every moment of every day with something that is robbing children of simple play and self-discovery.

  • Cheryl Barron

    Wonderful,these skills will serve him for a lifetime.

  • I love this, Brian. Your self-respect for your own needs seems to have trickled down to Felix. Lucky him. 🙂 Looking back, so many of my best memories of my childhood are those that were solitary – reading, drawing, riding my bike and finding places to hide. I had friends but still treasured my alone time – just like I do today. Thanks so much for sharing!

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  • IBikeNYC

    I know PLENTY of grown-ups who would benefit greatly from knowing themselves the way you know Felix and he knows himself!

    This sounds lovely.

  • Tracy

    This describes, exactly, my aversion to cramming our family life with tons of activities. I needed that space in my life and I refused to fill it up with activities just because. I always said I would consider something if the child pestered for it – they never did. Even my extroverts. I still get flak from a SIL who firmlh believes all children should do sports. I have an equally firm belief that we are not all sporty and my family does better when Mum is calm and happy.

  • Great piece Brian. Just recently, in the last three years, I’ve really learned how essential solitude is for the Self. It’s the foundation to self growth, mindfulness and awareness. For me, I’m grateful for having recognized it for what it truly is at this stage of my life as I have a three year old and an 8 month old for I can instill this into their lives. Not rushing, not always being involved, but rather, having moments of solitude and slowing things down is what feeds the soul. It’s what lays the foundation for being our best selves. Thanks for sharing your story.