When we were young, we might have taken one dance class per week and had a cabinet full of toys. By contrast, it's not unusual for today's infants and toddlers to take several classes and have several rooms overrun with dolls, cars, and all manner of gizmos and gadgets. Two-thirds of grandmothers polled said their grandkids were spoiled or somewhat spoiled, and the top reason cited was too many toys. The issue boils down to the grandparents' belief that kids who are surrounded by toys and shepherded from class to class won't learn how to find their own things to do and enjoy themselves.
"I believe it's too much structure," says Barry Beyer, of West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, who sees his granddaughters, 4 and 2, going to ballet, gym, swimming, Mommy & Me class, and more -- all in one week. "Kids are missing out on private time, time they could use to do their own thing and become an individual. If the TV's off and Mommy's making dinner, they don't know what to do with themselves." It's also exhausting for parents to chauffeur kids around to all these events, not to mention expensive.
Striking a Balance
Teamwork Tip: Experts side with the grandparents on this one. "I don't think infants and toddlers need any scheduled activities for their own enrichment," says Bill Doherty, PhD, author of Putting Families First (Owl Books, 2002). His research shows that between 1981 and 1987, free-play time for kids as young as 3 dropped 25 percent (or about 12 hours a week), and outdoor playtime dropped 50 percent, while time spent on structured activities, especially organized sports, doubled. The research, conducted at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, is based on the time diaries of 3,600 children and their families. What kids do need, Doherty argues, is time to just be kids -- to explore the house and neighborhood and interact with other children and adults.
That said, it's still okay to sign your child up for enrichment classes, but Doherty recommends limiting them to two per week or kids may get tired, cranky, and overstimulated. If you're bent on doing more structured events every day of the week, take care to make sure your child gets plenty of downtime in between. You can still set up activities, such as finger painting, wooden blocks, or sandbox play, but do just enough to get your kids going and then step back and let them do their own thing.
In the meantime, go ahead and tell Grandma you're thrilled for your child to have free play with a loving caregiver -- when should you bring her over?