Giving children what they sometimes need most: Time off

It happened as the children and I were making plans for a week-long school vacation - plans I assured them would contain a good variety of ''interesting and exciting'' things to do. My daughter, who knows me better than I want her to , eyed me narrowly and said, ''Please, Mom, nothing educational.''

We'd reached that state through the very best of motives, I assure you. In an effort to forward my children's progress, I'd enrolled them in Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts - marvelous organizations - and signed them up for piano lessons. Then there were the team sports, the trampoline classes, and the ballet lessons that would give them necessary outlets for all that energy.

Of course, man does not live by muscle alone, so we spent our Saturdays chauffeuring them to pottery and puppet classes, story hours at the library, and a wonderful cable TV class, given by the local public-access channel.

Did I mention the nature hikes? I'd read somewhere that parents need to introduce their children to the wonders of the great outdoors - a place that stands between me and my car - and although I can't tell the difference between an oak tree and a rosebush, we dutifully struck off one summer to make a wildflower and tree-leaf collection.

It is true that my kids absorbed a great deal of information through all this. They now know the difference between an oak leaf, a maple tree, and a trampoline, and they possess a large collection of homemade puppets, while I own a unique set of porous pots.

But they seem to have missed something they needed more: Time off. Time to kick sticks around the yard, throw rocks in the creek, and ride their bikes to nowhere. Time to sit with a friend on the front steps and watch the sunlight move across the street. Time to be alone.

It is true that parents need to enrich their children's educational opportunities and expose them to different ideas, especially now, when many school districts have been forced to make cuts in enrichment classes. But it is so easy to fall into the trap of over-organizing our children, filling up their precious free time with swim meets, cooking classes, and art projects, when they'd rather be out playing Star Wars with the kid next door.

I'm still searching for a compromise on this, learning not to sign them up for more than one or two classes a semester, and trying to keep their weekends free. And I'm learning to ''educate'' them the way my husband does it - by following through on their own questions, instead of following the magazine suggestions about what kids need to learn.

Of course, this education doesn't always take a scholarly bent. One time, my husband spent a whole hour teaching them, with infinite patience, how to blow bubbles in their bubble gum. This is not, of course, the way to mold eloquent, active, informed citizens - but it sure met their need that day.

And maybe that's what parenting is all about.

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