Making More White Space on Our Kids’ Calendars

Recently I was speaking at a MOPS group and a Mentor Mom spoke before me on the importance of kids needing time to simply be kids.

As a talented and passionate piano teacher, she shared with us a little secret about her selection process for accepting potential piano students: she has the kids fill out a weekly schedule, and, get this, if there isn’t enough white space on their calendar, she won’t take on the student.

I absolutely LOVE this.

Here’s a successful piano teacher, who could make more money by taking on more students, but instead she chooses to respect the needs of a child’s life – one of which is that they have enough unplanned, unfilled time to be a kid!

She also got me thinking about this: children cannot develop their capacity for imagination when they are constantly hampered with extra-curricular activities and being shuttled about from practice to an event to another practice. Creative genius is borne from times of solitude, reflection, and unstructured play and imagination.

A jam-packed schedule isn’t good for kids developmentally. Nor does it allow them the time to truly learn how to enjoy playing the piano – or whatever activity they love.

TED TALK – “CONNECTED, BUT ALONE”

Recently I watched a TED Talk in which presenter Sherry Turkle spoke on the social and psychological effects on humans from being constantly plugged in to technological social lives.

I don’t have time here to address every aspect (so you should watch the video), but here are a few highlights to whet your appetite and get you thinking:

  • Turkle says, “We’re letting technology take us places that we don’t want to go.”
  • Technology is psychologically powerful; it changes not just what we do but who we are.
  • Even when together, we often deny each other our full attention, whether family or friends, because we spend so much time on our phones.
  • We are losing our capacity for self-reflection. We desperately want to be with each other, yet also elsewhere, and we try to control our amounts of interaction to the exact specifications we prefer.
  • We hide even while connected to each other.
  • Conversation terrifies us because it happens in real time and can’t be controlled, while texts, emails, and online presences allow us to present the self we want to project without our real messes and flaws – retouched for our audience, who never get to know the real us.
  • We prefer small connections over deep conversations, as many tell Turkle, “I would rather text than talk.”
  • Some relate to Turkle that they hope one day a more advanced version of Siri (Apple’s voice activation for the iPhone) will become like a best friend.
  • We dread the painful truth that no one is listening to us, so we prefer outlets like Facebook, which gives us automatic listeners because deep down we have no confidence that we will be there for each other.
  • Turkle states, “We expect more from technology than from each other” because technology appeals to us where we are most vulnerable: we are lonely but afraid of intimacy and prefer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.
  • Turkle laments that, “Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved.”
  • Constant online connection only addresses the symptoms, not the true problem.
  • Our current philosophy is: “I share, therefore I am.”
  • We need to help the youth cultivate the ability to be in solitude, to self-reflect, out of which we learn to reach out and make true connections to others.
  • “Create sacred spaces in the home and reclaim them for conversation.”

There’s even more in the full talk, so I encourage you to watch it and share it with others.

For our purposes here, Turkle discusses to what extent we remain connected to and dependent upon our technology, especially our phones. Students text and use Facebook and Twitter during school, adults answer emails and texts during board meetings, and there is no sign of this phenomenon slowing down anytime soon.

Some people have even related to Turkle about the important new skill of making eye contact while texting!

THE FUTURE FOR OUR CHILDREN…

When I wrote some articles on Nicholas Carr’s fascinating book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, I mentioned that I am not anti-technology. That said, I fear what is happening to us as a result of being so plugged in all the time.

Even more, I fear what the effects will be – and already are – on our children.

Turkle concludes in her presentation that while we may feel technology connects us more, as Turkle herself once argued in the 1990s before we really saw how far social networking would develop, the psychological reality she keeps discovering in her studies is that human beings are terrified to be alone.

This fear of silence, of self-reflection, of being alone with our thoughts – this is nothing new for human beings. We have always had to deal with this issue.

The difference now, though, is we have a device that ensures us we never have to face more than three seconds of silence if we don’t want to do so. We can listen to music, play games, surf the Web, shop online, message friends, or do any number of activities that make us think we are connecting to others and staying busy.

But is that the same thing as true human connection? One teenager said to Mrs. Turkle, “Someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

That statement breaks my heart.

CAMP GRANDMA

Let me share with you a little bit about something I call “Camp Grandma.” This is my little weekend world I create for my grandkids where we spend a couple of days together playing, reading, swimming, gardening, baking, cooking, and just talking…without one minute of computers, television, video games, or movies.

Not because I think those things are “evil.” But because I think a full, rich life is one that includes much more than technology.

When the earlier mentioned piano teacher insists that her students have more white space on their calendars, she does not view “playing video games” as equivalent to down time or playtime. She isn’t seeking to fill all those spaces with piano lessons, either!

What she wants is for kids to be kids. Yes, part of that reality in today’s world will include technology and involvement in extra-curricular activities. The point is to do so in moderation. Children need balance. (What am I saying, adults need balance, too!) But children especially need it, and it is our job as the adults to guard and protect that for them.

When my children were young, we allowed them to pick one activity at a time with which they could become involved. When one ended, they could choose a new one or stick with the current one. Not only did this introduce them to various activities, but it did so without overwhelming them, without taking away from their time to ride bikes and play outside.

A child’s brain is not the same as an adult’s. They need healthy, long, sustained doses of unstructured free play, of time for imagination, of pure relaxation.

If we keep filling all their white spaces with activities and then stick them in front of a screen the few moments they do have free, we will be doing them a major disservice.

So put down the phones, make time for family and reading and playing, and discover the joys of Camp Grandma for yourselves!

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Jody Capehart
Jody Capehart has more than 40 years' experience as a children's minister. She's the co-author of The Discipline Guide for Children's Ministry and the author of numerous other books. She currently teaches Sunday School at Stonebriar Community Church.