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How Much Free Time Is Too Much?

Offer your tips and advice for how to balance a child's time with school, play, and family activities.

Amy Chua’s provocative memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” has set parenting blogs on fire since being published last month. In the book, Chua, a professor at Yale Law School and the author of two best-selling books on free-market democracy and the fall of empires, according to the NPR story about her, defends the traditional Chinese model of parenting that she has used in rearing her daughters, Sophia and Louisa.

To call her strict is like saying the sun is merely “hot.” But to adopt the tough love ways of the Tiger Mother, says Chua, is to assume strength instead of fragility in your child. And to do so drives them to nothing less than success. Getting there, however, requires what Western parents may see as punishingly hard academic work and a schedule that does not consider any extracurricular activity other than practicing the piano or violin to be beneficial to the child.

The Tiger Mother approach to parenting rejects play dates, sleepovers, watching TV, playing video games and any other activity you can think of that the average American kid does during “free time.” And that’s because there is no “free time.”

Chua’s parenting style raises myriad questions, but let’s just start with this one: 

Do kids need free time – and how much is too much?

Deb: I think all children need free time. I truly believe that unscheduled, unstructured time is critical to creativity, relaxation, and problem-solving. I know that if I don't include some "open time" in my day, I am more stressed and overwhelmed. I imagine it's the same for children. Running from event to event only increases the sense that I have too much to do and not enough time to do it. I find that if I just sit with my kids and talk, I discover what's going on in their minds, what's bothering them, and what moves them. It's a key time to solve any issues or just enjoy each other's company. Free time also opens a child to create activities that fill the time without feeling the pressure to conform to expectations. It's my position that free time expands the mind and promotes mental and social flexibility.

How much is too much? It depends on the child. You don't want to schedule so much free time that homework suffers, for instance. For my family, an hour a day works. If I can, I try to schedule more than an hour on the weekends. Still, I've found that my children need boundaries and to not feel too unstructured. As with everything else, it's best to have all things in moderation.

Kristine: While I completely respect what every parent feels is right for their child, including Tiger Mom, I like my kids to have free time.  To me, this seems like one of the best, cost-free ways to booster a child's creativity.  I love seeing the things my kids come up with when I tell them to go play in their room. More often than not, I've seen them creating stories around their stuffed animals or drawing amazing pictures.

Free time is more important than ever especially in an age where some parents feel compelled to keep their kids busy every moment of the day. No parent wants to hear their child is bored but, personally, I think it's perfectly healthy to feel this way on occasion. As adults, if we're bored, we find things to do. So will kids.  I would draw the line at too much free time if a child starts getting into trouble on a consistent basis.

Suzanne: Right here in Poway’s School District this past week, no less a national figure than U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan intoned that schools are failing our nation’s children.  Talk about “in your face!” And right here in the middle of one of the best school districts in this state, certainly in the nation.  And a retired general said applicants can’t pass basic entrance tests for the military.  Perhaps those men didn’t read the local papers, about the 57th annual Greater San Diego Fair of Engineering and Sciences just concluding last week for hundreds of stellar local students enrolled in all these failing local schools.  Here is the “disconnect.” The schools are NOT failing. 

Dirty little secret: kids and parents are failing to use the schools.  In Poway parents even go to the school board to ask for less homework so that their kids can continue to be involved in multiple out-of-school activities. Honestly, I am not making this up.  And of course try explaining something like writing an essay or doing algebra to a kid who would rather spend those hours perfecting his skateboard or video gaming technique.  Hmmm, you don’t suppose that a parent, any parent, even Chua, would have required the child to master essay writing, algebra or biology, BEFORE skateboard technique; or soccer scoring; or “hanging out on the street corner.” It does appear that Chua may be over-exuberant, but schools are NOT failing kids; kids and their families are failing the schools and all that they offer. A tad of Chua’s interest in her kids’ future would be a welcome improvement in family dynamics locally.  Actually push kids to try harder, at something useful.  Too often parents worry that their precious darlings will be “turned off” if they “fail” at an activity the first time, so they substitute feel-good sports and activities, even saying that a sports resume will get their kid a good scholarship into college.  Stellar grades also will get you into college; and by the way, what would be wrong with demanding that your child go for an engineering degree or one in botany or in education?  Yep, math, science, English, and a green thumb will be needed.  Are they tough?  Sure are.  So is life. In fact, engineering degrees are known for taking five and six years.  What’s wrong with that. 

Too often these days a lackadaisical youth of 18 or 20 or so finally decides that living under dad’s roof has lasted too long.  Quickly that youth, male or female, discover that employers (military and others) actually want people who have background, knowledge and skill that could have been obtained in the past 12 to 14 years of free public local education.  Of course, the kid and the parent blame the schools because they don’t want to be the guilty parties.  The prospective employers hire from overseas, where, get this, parents demand that kids study hard and go to college.  What a concept. Chua may seem draconian.  But parents of those Science Fair winners, even winners of the regional Spelling Bee, have the right idea.  Require kids to study; they won't turn into automatons. Really.

Mark McDonough March 30, 2011 at 09:17 PM
I couldn't agree with you more Suzanne... Well said. I have had the privilege of being involved with my children's school and I have seen the amazing effort and accomplishment of the teachers, staff, and school toward the education of our children. It is not the schools. And to piggy back on your commentary regarding the over protective, feel good parenting that keeps so many kids from experiencing hurt and failure, it is my feeling that our children learn from those failures. So much more than when they receive a participation award that celebrates mediocrity rather than acknowledging the truth about life... not everybody wins. When did we stop saying try harder, practice more, maybe next time in an effort to protect our kids? In many ways we are in danger of crippling them when we simply say, at least you tried. When did it happen that the activity was no longer reward enough? When we talk about free time, we also talk about free choice, but what is available to our kids as a choice is still a parents prerogative and part and parcel to the successes and failures our kids experience and ultimately the opportunities they will grow and learn from. Choose wisely.

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