My Mother’s Biggest Parenting Mistake Taught Me To Be Wary Of Overbooking My Kids

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girl playing violinThis is a reader submission for our Mother’s Day essay contest, “What My Mother’s Biggest Parenting Mistake Taught Me About Parenting.”

My mother, a loving, SAHM before there was ever an acronym for it, gets plenty of high marks; no wire hangers for this Gen Xer—but now that I’m 38 with a freelancing career and kids of my own, I look back on the way I was parented and want to circle little things here and there with a red pen.  My mom will gasp and feel hurt when she reads this, and she will in fact read it because she is supportive of my writing habit. Please don’t feel bad, Mom. You were wonderful! It’s just a small grievance that I must apply in the raising of my own kids some 30 years later because the world has changed and is damn competitive now.

So, let me just get this out there. My mom hated the concept, and still does, of ANY extracurricular activity—if and when I joined anything—and my track record (never actually ran track) was pretty modest. Anything I wanted to do: build sets for drama, enter the science fair, try out for tennis, or simply peddle cookies; well… I had to work hard on the PR angle and make Mom see that it was worth our time.

“Kids need to just be,” she’d insist and still does, especially now that her grandchildren are heavy into piano lessons.  When she hears them playing scales or sitting hunched over a difficult piece, she’ll go so far as to say things like: “how unfair to make a kid sit there at the piano on such a beautiful day. Don’t you think that’s a bit harsh?”

I can see that she truly loves us and is trying to help. At times, I can even see her point—but, well…I can’t sugarcoat this. I remember the heartbreak of being incredibly average.

I was not particularly good at anything but Atari and keeping up my sticker books. I cut my mom a lot of slack because nobody has come to know, like I have, how much all this shit costs. We were poor in the 80s. But my Mom sacrificed a lot to be the best parent she could, including taking leave of a lucrative career. If she had valued the idea of me playing the French horn or standing in a stacked pyramid of cheerleaders, she certainly would have made it happen. She genuinely thought it was all stupid, like a bunch of peacocks, branding after-school clubs “dippy little organizations,” rapidly shutting down my illusions of grandeur for the main part in the school play.  She probably spared me. I can’t act, but yet I resented the cartoon bubble above our heads that always seemed to be saying, “This is such a waste of time.”

I try, all these years later, to let my kids know that their extracurricular activities are not a waste of time—but I’m no fool. I know my children, ages six and eight, would just love it if I agreed with their grandmother.  It’s a tempting alternative for me, too. I mean, come on, I’m only human and I can do basic math.

Making mud pies is a hell of a lot cheaper than spending your summer building a robot that calls for $250 worth of “workshop supplies,” but something in me craves these experiences for my children and always will. Deep down, I know I’m being a little pretentious, a little “vicarious much?” Am I not acting like just the kind of name-dropping, private school tuition paying mother who my own mom always scorned?

But there is an upside to contemplating my mom’s attitude about “dippy little organizations.” First and foremost I feel very lucky to be in a place, finally, where I can afford them. I am glad that my mom, like a kindly devil’s advocate on my shoulder, begs me to scrutinize and even second guess all the summer activity brochures that come home in my kids’ backpacks. Sometimes I find the glossy brochures sad. Sure, a copywriter like me wrote the class descriptions, but some of these “camps” are definitely for parents with more money than sense, and not really about the kids at all.

In many ways, my mom had it right.  Overbooking is something a lot of parents are guilty of; especially me. We want a break from being parents. My mother, God bless her, never did. There was no art supply fee when we picked strawberries in the summer, and this time around, when school lets out and the days are long, I will try to remember that.

(photo: Blue Planet Earth / Shutterstock)