Surviving the After-School Rush
If you're like so many others with on-the-go children, your calendar is full of activities, from sports practices and games to extracurricular activities like art classes, music lessons or church-affiliated clubs. Somewhere in between all this busyness, your family must eat, tend to important subjects like homework and be able to get enough sleep to ensure you can get up the next morning and do it all again.
Don't fret, say those who've juggled activities for more than one child and survived to tell about it. It is possible to not only participate in after-school activities but also to cultivate peace and joy in your family life.
First Things First
Take a hard look at how your family is spending its time. Your goal may be to raise healthy children, but they – and you – may be growing stressed in the process. At the very least, limit activities to one or two per season, per child, depending upon how many children are in your family. When you're looking to cut or add an activity, consider how much "running around" is involved.
"Don't choose an activity if it doesn't leave your family 'margin,'" says Erin Brown Conroy, author of 20 Secrets to Success with Your Child (Celtic Cross Publishing, 2003) and the mother of 12 (yes, 12!) children. "Experts have stressed the necessity to 'leave room' between activities for our overall heath. Trying to race across town in the 30 minutes between two activities builds unnecessary stress and anxiousness into our lives – and into our kids' lives. If it doesn't leave room for 'margin,' don't add it."
Once your priorities are straight, keep everyone on the same page by posting a large dry-erase or chalkboard in plain view with everyone's activities written down.
Hitting the Road
It's important to provide your children with a couple hours of downtime after school – before the activities begin, says Dr. Rallie McAllister, mother of three, physician and author of Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim (Lifeline Press, 2003).
If the activity takes place immediately following school, you can still give your child a couple hours of downtime after the activity. Definitions of downtime may vary, so whether you're helping your child complete homework assignments or simply having a relaxing discussion about your child's day, try not to rush.
When the time comes to "hit the road," make the most of everyone's time by packing accordingly: crayons, paper, a laptop desk, and a cooler packed with fruits, veggies and cold drinks. Waiting parents may want to carry a portfolio of bills to pay or a craft bag with projects to tackle. Because finding time is an issue, it's best to pre-coordinate these care packages when you have a bit of time on the weekend. Keeping a basket, box or bag of creative items in the trunk is fairly easy. In order to have healthy snacks on hand, purchase precut veggies, fruit and bottled water. Have the items packed in a small cooler and placed within easy reach just inside the fridge.
Even with downtime and capitalizing on travel and waiting time, running here, there and everywhere can become daunting. That's why you should never underestimate the power of a carpool. "Find two to four other parents who can work out a regular, predictable schedule of driving to activities," Conroy says. "Even if another person can drive all of the time, don't let them. Your child needs to see you coming and going to practices, too. Regular involvement speaks volumes to your child."
Conroy offers a few more tips to help you maximize your time – even when you're running around:
Remember what you learned in kindergarten: take turns. If two children have activities on Tuesday, let Mom drive one and Dad drive the other. The next week, switch. Let each parent create special rituals with the child, like stopping by the coffee shop for a cookie or taking an extra five minutes beyond practice to toss the ball together on the practice field. Children will look forward to taking turns with their parents and enjoying these special times.
When other children are involved, special rituals can be created for them. Know the parks and activities in the area. While waiting for one child to finish their activity, take the other sibling to a park, playground or walking trail.
You might also keep sports equipment in the car. Take along roller blades, baseball mitts and balls, Frisbees or a soccer ball. Be active with the waiting child. If activity isn't an option because of the weather, read a novel together that appeals to all ages, like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis.
Home Sweet Home
Whether you eat before or after practices and activities, time is limited. Aside from cooking ahead and freezing meals, which still requires time at some point, you might consider thinking outside of the box – the cereal box, that is. Consider following Kristine Breese's lead and designating a once-a-week cereal night, where dinner is quick, easy and tailored to each child.
"It's so fun, and doing the dishes is literally rinsing out a bowl," says Breese, whose children are 8 and 6. "The kids think it's a hoot."
Breese came up with this idea and many others when she was recovering from a heart attack and had to learn to juggle because her life literally depended on it. To this day, Breese, author of Cereal for Dinner: Shortcuts, Strategies & Sanity for Moms Battling Illness (St. Martin's Press, 2004), and her family hold to this tradition.
On the busiest nights, you may find that time after dinner is in short demand. Once again, prioritize. Before you think about cutting out the traditional shower or bath, bedtime story, prayers or evening question and answer session, think again. Maintaining a nighttime routine, whenever possible, is also critical, Breese says. Children rely on this, whether it's reading books or listening to soothing music before turning off the lights. And your entire family needs to rely on a good night's sleep in order to get up and tackle that crazy schedule again tomorrow.