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How the COVID-19 pandemic has freed up overscheduled families

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For some Canadian kids, life before COVID-19 moved at a frantic pace. School and extracurricular activities meant little to no down time. Laurel Gregory looks at the impact of this pandemic pause on one family.

In the “before times” as he likes to call the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, Casey Palmer‘s family life was scheduled, busy and even felt a bit chaotic. His four- and six-year-old sons’ extracurricular schedule included scouts, swimming, karate, soccer and winter skating.

“Basically three, four, maybe sometimes five days a week on top of church on weekends,” he said. “All of that combined made for a really busy Palmer family life.

“You would have quick dinners at home and then maybe run out to a soccer game or fit in something right after school at the pool and then come home for a late dinner.”

Casey Palmer's six-year-old son plays soccer prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Casey Palmer's six-year-old son plays soccer prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy: Casey Palmer
Casey Palmer's sons, aged six and four, have far more unstructured time than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Casey Palmer's sons, aged six and four, have far more unstructured time than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy: Casey Palmer

Since the spring, the Toronto family’s only extracurricular commitment is virtual scouts once a week. That’s fine by Palmer; he’s enjoying the slower pace and extra family time.

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“I think the gold has been getting a richer understanding of our children,” he said.

“Before you thought you were doing everything because you were at all their programs or you went to all their school things, but you didn’t understand who they were because you just didn’t have the time to spend with them.”

Many Canadian families are noticing a lifestyle shift as a result of the pandemic. Some families have enrolled in fewer extracurricular activities in order to maintain a smaller cohort or bubble. Others have signed up for online activities which can be done from the comfort of their kitchen table or living room couch. The extra time has given parents an opportunity to evaluate the pace of their pre-pandemic lives and question how many activities they want to return to.

READ MORE: How to spot an overscheduled child

“There is no standard of practice in this domain,” child psychologist Jody Carrington said.

“What is too much for one kid? What’s not enough for another? I think it’s such a subjective question.”

Carrington says overscheduling versus underscheduling has nothing to do with the quantity of activities, rather the quality of the child’s relationships in those environments.

“The fundamental basis of all of this is so much around, ‘Are we losing the capacity to stay face to face connected to our kids?’ You cannot ever trump that with the best hockey programs, with the best jiu jitsu programs, with the best music lessons,” Carrington said.

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“It all comes down to the relationship either with you and your child around that process, or the child and the people who are holding them in that space — their coach, their teacher, whatever the deal is.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Palmer thinks his kids were likely in too many activities prior to the pandemic even if “they would argue they were fine doing it.”

It isn’t clear what the post-COVID-19 schedule will look like, but he’s grateful this pause has allowed for so much family time.

“I have a very clear understanding of who both my children are — for better and worse and everything in between,” Palmer said.

“I think it leads to a richer bond between us.”