The Busy Backpack


“Busy,” my son said, picking the word out of a handful of adjectives describing his seven-year-old self. It was an online quiz to help him pick out a school backpack. He could have picked creative, playful or smart, but he picked busy.

“Busy?” I asked. “Are you sure?”

“Busy,” he said confidently. And I clicked the word I was trying to avoid all summer.

We had just returned from a beach vacation, from a solid week without a back-to-back schedule of school activities and somehow my seven-year-old still considered himself “busy.”

Kirkham surfboard
Kirkham “busy” on the beach

I thought we were all intentionally NOT busy this summer. After a year-long season of soccer and a circus of after-school activities, my family and I both needed a break. No more rushed drop-offs, changes of clothes and hurried homework. We were living the no-rush summer of our dreams! So I thought.

And I thought some more. The fear of regret crept in. Was I using all this extra time this summer wisely? Am I supposed to be training my kids to be as efficient as a machine, jam as much as I can into their day so they can compete with the future Siri or some prodigy?

No. That sounded so exhausting and ridiculous. So why did I feel like an incompetent parent for not signing up my children for activities T, U, V and W, X, Y and Z this summer? And I thought even more.

And I’m so glad I thought. Because when you stop being busy, you think. You ask yourself what’s important. You sort through what matters – and what doesn’t. And when it’s summer, busy isn’t better.

A recent Wall Street Journal essay  by author Bradley Staats gave evidence for why people — in my case, parents — have what he calls an “action bias,” a need to feel like we’re doing something. Staats cited a 2007 study that showed professional soccer goalies are more likely to dive far left and right rather than stand still in a penalty kick – despite the statistics that show that kicks are just as likely to go down the middle. Their reasoning: The goalies wanted to appear as though they were doing something. In a sense, the goalies wanted to appear busy, the writer argued.

It seems to be human nature to want to show you tried, sometimes trying to the extreme, even if it doesn’t lead to the right result. I definitely feel this “action bias” as a parent signing up my kids for this and that activity. Staats went on to argue that “learning requires recharging and reflection, not constant action.”

What good does busy do if it doesn’t give us the desired result? And what is the desired result for our kids? I asked myself this as I poured over the long list of after-school activities emailed to parents before the upcoming school year. The pit in my stomach grew as I pictured the next 20 years of my life trying to find the right level of “busy” for my entire family.

If the ideal end result is a happy and healthy child — and family! — isn’t it critical that a parent find the right level of “busyness?” It’s so easy to take that too far when the human default mode seems to be “busy” and other humans seem to reward each other for being “busy.”

And I’m so glad I thought. Because when you stop being busy, you think. You ask yourself what’s important. You sort through what matters – and what doesn’t. And when it’s summer, busy isn’t better.

Being LESS busy and putting my thinking cap on, I asked myself, how can I be the thoughtful goalie, the parent that doesn’t veer too far left or right just because I fear I may regret staying put — or fear not doing enough for my kids?

Then in a moment of reflection, it dawned on me. I need to recognize the rewards of being less busy: The smile on my son’s face as he braves the ocean waters. The excitement in his voice as he asks me to join him in riding the waves.

Being less busy feels pretty good actually. Busy can wait — at least until school starts up again. I needed time this summer for play and reflection, and maybe my “busy” child did too.

And as it turns out, at the end of the simple backpack quiz, after picking science as his favorite class, and “finding bugs” as his favorite thing to do at recess, I also recognized the up-side of my “busy” child. He’s a busy learner and thinker, “a curious mind” so the quiz said. I’ll take it! That’s one busy that’s not so bad.


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