One of the questions we are often asked as parents is “What after school activities do your children do?” Maybe it is just the “mother thing”. Since the most meaningful bumper sticker I have ever seen was one which read “A mother’s place is in the wrong,” it is probably not surprising that the simple questions about after school activities sends me into paroxysms of guilt.

Am I doing enough to promote the extracurricular learning of my children? After all, these are the golden learning years and the more they have access to sporting and cultural activities, the more likely they are to find leisure activities that will set them up for their adult life.

I’ve read books that tell me that it is up to me to hunt for the activity that will give my child high self-esteem so that, no matter what their siblings excel in, I should find just the right activity that will make this particular child worthy and special.

I have also been given lots of warnings about how tired my children are after a full day at school and how what they most need is down-time to rest and recuperate and have time to contemplate, chill out and do some thinking.

I have had kids that bound out of school ready and eager for the next activity and, for whom, the worst you can say is “We’re going straight home” and I’ve had children who wilt out of school and already have in mind what TV programme they are going to plant themselves in front of.

Two of our children have enjoyed all sorts of activities after school, never excelled in any of them but benefited from most. One of our children chose a very unusual  after-school activity (according to our family history) and eventually went on to represent New Zealand overseas.

And we haven’t even begun to address the question of the “working parent” (let’s face it, we are all working parents) whose child is in after-school care and cannot be transported to various after-school learning activities, or the parent with several children, who have activities at clashing times and opposite sides of the city.

While we are talking about it, are weekends for family down-time to be spent together or for getting children to activities and sports matches?

With all this in mind, here is an article I wrote about six years ago. This article appears among sixty others in my book “They look so lovely when they’re asleep.”

The Family Rule

My parents came from Central Europe and the family rule was that every child learned the piano and then, as we nudged towards Secondary School age, our father would choose an orchestral instrument appropriate to our inclinations. Practicing between lessons was taken for granted, so we did.

This was a great system for me, because I was both musical and sociable, so playing in school orchestras gave me enormous pleasure. It worked well for my sister for much the same reasons. Our tone-deaf brother diverted our father by becoming a New Zealand chess champion.

I do recall going to two ballet lessons but I failed the entry test for five-year-olds, which involved lying on the floor on my tummy and touching my heels to my head. Since I couldn’t achieve this minimal flexibility, my life as a ballerina was over before it started.

Anything of an outdoor, athletic nature was anathema to our parents and our school Physical Education was daily and thorough and we learned the rudiments of all the sports a Kiwi Kid needed.

The Next Generation

When our first two children were young – to my amazement, they are now nudging thirty – we decided that one waited for a child to ask and then followed the child’s inclination. By the time they were respectively, ten and eight, no-one had asked and so we reverted to Child-raising Theory A from my childhood, “It is the mark of any cultured family that every child learns the piano.”

I had retained the memories of my parents racing around half of Auckland to take us to the “best” teachers and embarked on finding a piano teacher who lived within walking distance, with a view to getting on with the rest of my life and paying tuition fees as necessary.

My “lazy parent” plot failed dismally. The teacher took an enormous liking to me and insisted that I attend each lesson. She also thought that it was enchanting that a brother and sister should learn together and set about encouraging them to play duets. Since they were not capable of sitting next to each other on a settee to watch TV without ensuing bloodshed, playing duets was not an asset to their musical careers. After two years, I gave up the struggle.

It may be of interest to you to know that, when they were in their twenties, they berated me for not insisting that they continue piano lessons and forcing them – believe me, I tried – as they both would have, and I quote, “liked to be much better at playing the piano.”

This only goes to prove something we all know, as a parent, not only can you not win. You rarely get to choose which way you will lose.

Wise Words from a Principal

Three and a half years ago, we sat in a school hall to hear the school principal introduce a group of third formers to the school that they would be entering the following year. I was most impressed that, as part of her welcome, she said to us as parents “Your daughters will have more extra-curricular opportunities available to them than they can possibly take up. It is your job as parents to help them choose and to make sure that they do not over-commit themselves.”

So Many Opportunities…..

From Babygym and Singing Rainbows onwards, the sporting, cultural and social opportunities available to our toddlers, preschoolers and school students are truly remarkable and there is enormous pressure on us as parents, to enroll in as many as possible to make these opportunities available to our children. There is a fair degree of guilt-mongering in the question “What after-school activities are your children doing this term?”

….So Little Time

I also believe that we often commit ourselves to each child’s extra-curricular activities as if they were an only child. Thus, we over-commit our time and energy and often forget that, while one child is at their favourite after-school activity, we will have two other hot, grouchy, tired children to entertain.

While many of us have perfectly satisfactory homes to go to, we spend from three to six o’clock most week-day afternoons, trying to run dressing rooms in the back of our cars, smorgasbords through car windows in car parks and homework sessions on the bare floor at the back of a noisy school hall.

We arrive home after dinnertime and then have to begin the gruelling feed, bath and bed routine and also have to fit in and supervise that dreaded thing called “practice.” Weekdays can be a nightmare of one driver and three activities. Weekends may bring two shift-workers for some activities, but the ability to share things between two parents almost guarantees that all activities will be at opposite ends of the city.

Beware of Success

If you do find activities that your children really enjoy and are successful at, the punishment will be in inverse proportion to their success. If they are really good, their coaches will need to work with them three nights a week and one long session in the weekend. If they get to representative level, you will enjoy the delights on 5.00am weekend starts to get to another city and will get familiar with many motels dotted around New Zealand.

You will also get to wash uniforms, sew labels on, make fund-raising fudge and drive carloads of large sweaty boys or loud shrieking girls. Our last, apparently harmless, “Oh, Mum, can I enter a Speech competition next holidays?” resulted in a three-night motel stay, much travelling, much sight-seeing to fill in the gaps between competition items, much supermarket-raiding at strange hours and an enormous amount of fun and companionship with other parents and children.

And If I Had To Do It All Over Again?

I would moan and grizzle just as much. I would probably still over-commit us all and advise other parents not to follow my example.

But I would have missed a great deal if I had never been to Jazz ballet concert of five-year-olds, a soccer game where they enthusiastically scored a magnificent goal at the wrong end, a Judo competition where they fight like crazy on the mat and support each other tenderly before and afterwards.

I have shed sentimental tears at Speech Competitions, debates, and the marching-on of hundreds of diminutive gymnasts. I have sewn costumes when I don’t know how to sew, painted faces to look gorgeous or ferocious, put hair in nets with so many pins that the child rattled and sufficient hair spray that the Laws of Gravity no longer applied.

I have cheered till I was hoarse and clapped till I have had “ring-blisters.” I have exchanged looks of empathy and warmth and excitement with the many parents who have shared the same passion. And I have carried numerous exhausted troupers from car to bed.

What Have I Learned?

It is hard to get the right balance between the opportunities for parents and for children and the exhaustion and satisfaction that go with it. Trial and error shows that, by the time you have worked out the best plan for your family, your children will be out of school, and finished with after-school activities. You will heave a sigh of relief but, strangely enough, you will look back on them as some of the best parenting times.

So how do I feel about it all now? I still don’t have a consistent answer to give you. The best I can do is say…

Start from the basis that you have no obligation to take your child to structured after-school activities and they will do well having unstructured time to run around, chill out and do something that contributes to the running of the household.

Over and above that, if you have the financial and time resources – and the energy – to give your children extra-curricular activities, it can be lots of fun and can give your children access to a wider world of opportunities than school and home can provide.

The most important advice I can give is to pace yourself and your children and respect everyone’s energy and stress levels – particularly your own – rather than trying to make things “fair” by giving children an equal number of activities, each term and each year.

If you are enjoying yourself and your children are enjoying themselves, go for it. If it is stressful and exhausting, reassess.

This is a learning curve for you and your family, so be prepared to do what works and give up on what doesn’t.


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Diane Levy’s warm, humorous, practical and commonsense approach to raising children is evident in her writing, her speaking and her private practice in Auckland as a family therapist. Her main focus is on coaching parents. She is also the author of the best-seller “Of course I love you…NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM”, “They look so lovely when they’re asleep” and “Time Out for tots, teens and everyone in between."

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Jonathan Roe

What a load of puritanical nonsense. Let kids be kids, let them organise their own play after school. Or why not play a game with your kids, and I don’t mean a sports jock game like soccer, rugby or that interminable netball? Let your kids take the lead. School’s an institution where the agenda and rules are set and run by adults. Surely all children deserve unstructured time outside school. Besides, most kids will learn more from play than hours spent in a classroom. Otherwise we’ll end up turning kids into adults who are not self-reliant and satisfied. It’s no… Read more »

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