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In my neck of the woods (Michigan) there were quite a few January days when my lovely, hilarious, kind kids celebrated the coveted Snow Day. There was one week they had four in a row, which meant by the end I was not using words like “lovely”, “hilarious” or “kind” when I described them. In one week flat, they ate three weeks worth of groceries. They perfected the art of picking fights and, though they didn’t get dressed for days, I mysteriously had twice the laundry.
Snow days have evolved since the olden days when I was a kid. A snow day meant we got up early to check the scrolling announcements during the early morning news show. We’d hunker down and stay home, disconnected with the rest of the world.
My social kids don’t understand this. They texted their friends and set up times to snowmobile. They FaceTimed and played squad mode in Fortnite. Friends came over for the afternoon and overnight. We shuttled them here, there and everywhere. I doled out constant reminders to put the technology away and find something creative to do. By the end of the week, we were all exhausted.
The truth is, I love the friends they have in their lives. I loved the games of euchre and movies huddled on the couch. We had a lot of great moments during the week.
But underneath it all was a constant thrum of activity, a desire to “fill the time” in order for my kids to be happy. It’s a dangerous way to live, scrambling from one thing to the next, my kids believing the world revolves around them.
The need for margins
Pick up a book, any book. Around the edges of the page you’ll see the margin. Even this blog post has a margin. If the words went from end to end, you’d find it impossible to read. Your eyes wouldn’t be able to decipher one line from the next. I don’t have to argue the value of margin as you read because it just makes sense.
Does the same principle apply in our days? In the way we spend our time? In this always-busy-social-media-more-is-better world, it’s easy to fill each minute of every day with something. And I’m not just talking about activities on snow days.
We get tricked into thinking our job is to make sure our kids are fulfilled by spending each moment involved and entertained. We load up on activities, objects, and experiences because we want to be the best parents to our kids. We just want them to be happy.
If there’s a chance that they might struggle, all we have to do is recruit a tutor, coach, or mentor to make up the gap between where they are and where they should be. Before we know it, our calendar is overflowing, our margin is razor thin, and we wonder why we feel so anxious and overwhelmed all of the time.
How can our actions communicate to our children that our mission in life is bigger than the next event?
Is this perpetual exhaustion just a part of the job of being a parent? Or is there another way? Because here’s the thing: kids don’t know how to recognize if they’re overstimulated and overstressed. Of course they want to do all the things because it’s fun and exciting. They don’t recognize their limitations or how to organize their time. We, as intentional parents, have to teach them.
Google “teens + burnout” and you’ll be overwhelmed at the amount of information. Not only is it real, but it’s prevalent… and I have to wonder just how much of that is on our shoulders as their parents. Record numbers of kids are anxious, overwhelmed and fearful. Perhaps part of the reason they’re crumbling under the pressure is that we haven’t modeled margin to them. Are there things we can do today that protect them from breakdowns later?
If we want kids who know the value of white space, they need to see it cultivated in us first. Our kids have a front row seat to our lives, they’re watching us more than we’d like to admit. They don’t need you to get it perfect every time. They need to see you fight for the white space, to be authentic in your pursuit of a more meaningful life.
So how is your pursuit for a life with margins going? Here are three questions to get you thinking:
How am I processing “Yes” and “No”?
When a new activity or opportunity comes up, saying yes will most often require a sacrifice. Something will need to shift. Often it’s what’s in the margin: family time, sleep, time with God. Charles Spurgeon said, “Discernment is not a matter of simply telling the difference between what is right and wrong; rather it’s the difference between right and almost right.” You may find yourself saying no to good things, simply because they’re not the right things right now.
Do I have a plan?
Go to the grocery store without a list and you’ll be doomed. You’ll buy things you don’t really need and forget things you do need. The same is true for your schedule. Take thirty minutes to write some things on the calendar. Make a list of activities and their costs. Intentional parents know if they take a short view, they’ll quickly burn out. Instead, imagine the end. The end of this season, the end of the year, the end of their childhood. Altering your perspective from right now to someday will allow you to focus your priorities on what matters most. And maybe that means eliminating a few things that may hurt now, but will have a significant positive impact later.
Am I sitting down on the inside?
There are busy seasons in life and sometimes you need to just buckle down and do the work. But that doesn’t automatically mean you need to feel frantic and anxious. Pockets of quiet can still be found. Sitting down on the inside means that you can cultivate peace in your soul, even as life swirls around you. Find ways to transform our ordinary tasks into sacred ones: fold laundry and pray, make the most of the conversations in the car on the way to practice, turn off the unnecessary noise of the radio and television, limit social media. Your children will notice the difference in you and when they ask about it, seize the opportunity to teach them how to let their souls rest.
Don’t buy the lie that shrinking margins is the key to a better life.
Beware of the ways you’re modeling an overwhelmed and anxious life to your kids. Is your family in danger of burning out? Let me be the one to gently remind you there’s a bigger goal to parenting than just making sure your kids are happy. Be relentless in your pursuit of white space, no matter what the cost. Your kids will thank you.
Sarah Damaska lives in the Thumb of Michigan with her pastor-husband and three school-aged kids. Shaped by the death of her daughter, Annie, she writes on her blog sarahdamaska.com about the intersection of hope & sorrow and how God calls us to live holding onto both. Every fall, she boards a plane to visit her friends in Haiti, particularly two sweet ex-prostitutes who have taught her the power of redemption and how Jesus makes all things new.