Sadderday -- Avoid Overscheduling Busy Weekends

Two More Ways to Improve Saturdays

relaxing on the couch

Thayer Allyson Gowdy

I realized there was no use in dragging him to the Little Gym, so I did the only polite thing I could think to do: I texted an excuse to the hostess. "Lying to get out of a commitment is a wake-up call that you're overbooked," says Parents advisor William Doherty, Ph.D., director of the Marriage and Family Program at the University of Minnesota. His advice to me: Stop treating your kids like customers. You want to provide them with endless events to make them happy. Instead, choose what is most important and what you (and the kids) truly want to do. "How do I do that?" I ask. "You just ask them which parties and activities they really want to be a part of," says Dr. Doherty, author of Take Back Your Kids.

That weekend, we talked to the boys about how they wanted to spend the next few Saturdays. We discovered that we were able to cut a few events off our list in favor of things they'd prefer to do, like play Pok?mon. I made sure Dash understood his options (birthday party No. 2 vs. time with Dad at the park) so he knew that he had to choose. I realized that I'd underestimated how much he cared about having time to himself; he picked thoughtfully and didn't second-guess his choices. Turning down invites wasn't as hard as I thought it would be, either. Maybe having fewer kids at your party induces as much of a sigh of relief for parents as having fewer parties to go to.

Crazy-Busy versus Bored and Lonely

Overscheduled Saturdays feel like a time grind yet, paradoxically, my family has seemed to be just as stressed on the rare occasions when we've had nothing to do. While catching up on laundry and listening to the boys start to provoke each other, I always get a panicked thought: "It's noon and we don't have any plans." The next thing I know, I'm texting another family to come over for a "casual get-together" that pushes our family right back into the cycle of running errands, tidying the house, and negotiating sleepovers. Everyone is suddenly busy and overwhelmed. It's as if we're all addicted to being overscheduled.

We probably are. "The brain gets used to a lot of stimulation, and when you are faced with having nothing to do, you get anxious. The panic you feel is the fear of withdrawal from your overscheduled lifestyle, and a kid's brain is even more susceptible to this than an adult's," says Dr. Doherty. That explains my boys' frantic provoking of squabbles and sudden neediness that seems to get turned on like a switch when we have nothing but free play.

Families like ours need unstructured time to deprogram our addiction to the "what's next?" weekend mode. So Dr. Doherty suggests creating small chunks of unscheduled time during the weekend to help us detox. The hard part: You don't have to commit to the do-nothing time as much as you would to a party or a soccer game. Seeing our weekend mapped out with both full and empty time pockets helped us relax. In fact, it was like the Saturday of my dreams: The kids were in the backyard with a neighbor, David was puttering in the garage, and I was reading on a chaise in the garden. The boys found a kite and tried to fly it for a while, when the wind finally picked up. Suddenly, Saturday felt like a breeze.

Do More Heavy Lifting During the Week

Weekdays have their own hectic pace. They start with hustling your kids to the bus and end with a lightning round of dinner, homework, bath, and, finally, bedtime. But expectations are a lot lower; merely getting through the day can leave everyone feeling good about themselves. Therefore, why not add another chore to an already overloaded Tuesday rather than sullying a precious weekend with a trip to the big-box store. Consider doing a grocery run while the kids are asleep, or tackling a cleaning project that you might normally put aside for Saturday.

In addition to getting some chores off your plate, make an effort to spend time together throughout the week to take the pressure off having all your quality time on the weekend. Having a family dinner more than once or twice a week becomes your connective tissue. "If you get home late, try having a family snack or a group storytime. The goal is for everyone to come together on a regular basis," says Dr. Doherty.

I slowly began to implement all these changes and stopped pinning all my hopes and dreams on just one day. It was better to spread the imperfection and share the joy instead of shooting for an idealized vision of that 24-hour period each week when my family could shine. My once Sadderdays were getting happier by the minute. Now it's on to tackling Sundays!

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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