Our family has been uncharacteristically accident-prone recently. The bad luck streak started in late January, when I fell while skiing at Taos, somersaulted head first down a steep pitch, narrowly missing two trees, and tweaked my knee—my good knee, the one I hadn't broken back in September. A week later, four-year-old Maisy tripped in the bathroom at ski school, hit her head on someone's ski boot, and sliced a gash in her ear. And in the car on the way up to the mountain the other day, six-year-old Pippa spilled hot miso soup on her lap and suffered second-degree burns.
When life feels like a pile-on, it's tempting to ask: Why? What are we doing wrong? I know the answer, and it's not Mercury in retrograde. We're trying to do too much, too fast.
In our pursuit of the adventurous outdoor life, we're moving at warp speed. Winter used to feel like the quiet season, but not anymore. There's skiing—family ski days and ski school and dawn patrol skinning and solo touring sans kids. There's school and work, homework and deadlines, swimming lessons, climbing gym, after-school climate change club, free play at the park, spontaneous family game nights, and so on and so on. Kids thrive on structure, fresh air, and physical activity, but they also need downtime. We all do.
The other day I ran into a friend in the grocery story and traded the usual How's-Lifes? "Busy," he said without missing a beat, balancing a box of sushi in one hand and holding his four-year-old's hand in the other. "We have too much to do." Increasingly, this is becoming our standard exchange. But how do we downshift without giving up the full, dynamic family life we love?
First, make sure everyone's getting enough sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends ten to 11 hours per night for kids ages six to 13, and seven to nine hours per night for adults. According to the NSF's 2014 Sleep in America study, 34 percent of parents say that evening activities interfere with their children's bedtimes. Chronic sleep deficits have been shown to compromise our immune systems and our ability to focus, whether at work or school or on the ski slopes or soccer field. A study from Bradley Hospital Sleep Research Laboratory in Rhode Island found that insufficient sleep may be linked to health problems later in life, including obesity and decreased physical performance.
Next, don't wait for someone to get hurt or sick to take a rest day. When your kids are active, physical creatures with seemingly boundless energy that can be tough to tame (especially, maddeningly, at bed time), it's easy to forget that they're not little endurance dynamos impervious to getting hurt. According to a 2014 study from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, young athletes who push too hard and specialize too soon suffered from higher incidences of injury and burnout. Kids need an off-season, time for cross-training and free play, ideally one month every three months, according to Rachel Coel, co-director of Sports Medicine for Young Athletes at the Children's Hospital of Colorado, but they also need time off every week in-season, too.
John O'Sullivan, founder of Changing the Game Project, dedicated to putting children first in sports, recommends that the number of hours a child plays organized activities per week should not exceed his or her age (an eight-year-old should participate in no more than eight hours). In our house, we try for one to two days off per week from structured, athletic activities. If you've been charging hard for six weeks of ski school and everybody's dragging, consider taking one Saturday off and staying home. Don't get paranoid: Your child won't fall behind, and he will likely come back stronger physically and more engaged after the break.
Rest days aren't an excuse to hang out inside watching videos—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children get 60 minutes of moderate exercise everyday—but they are the perfect opportunities to emphasize spontaneous, child-directed, outdoor fun. Keep it simple. Last weekend, after Pippa got hurt, we took the dog for a walk on the trails near our house. Rather than get in the car or rally for a more ambitious hike, we simply put on our sneakers and coats and walked out the backdoor to explore our neighborhood at a new, slower pace. At a small granite ledge ten minutes from home, Pippa and Maisy spent 15 minutes clambering up and down the miniature cliff, practicing their climbing moves all on their own.
When you are at home, focus on creating a calm environment that allows for plenty of low-key quality time. The secret to a healthy family environment is what longtime Santa Fe-based school counselor Cynthia Fulreader calls "relaxed routine"—structure that helps children feel safe without becoming oppressive and adding more stress to daily life.
"Quality time isn't going on a beach vacation to Bermuda," says Fulreader. "It's something we do as we go along, in our everyday lives." Give your child 30 seconds of your full attention by touching them, looking them in the eye, and really listening (put your smartphone down). "Positive touch is essential to creating a strong bond," says Fulreader. Homework sessions can be a great opportunity for one-on-one time, too. Sit next to your child and work while she studies, preferably writing by hand, not on a computer, which can be too distracting. "This sends the message that you each have your own work, but you're in it together."
In our house, the late afternoons and evenings are the high-tension witching hours. The girls are tired from the day and weirdly wound up, and there's always one too many things to juggle: dinner, homework, bath, reading, and family time. Fulreader's fix: Mix it up; play with the sequence. Give them a soothing bath first, then let them do their math homework in their PJs. "Think of it like tai chi," says Fulreader. "You're coming at it from another angle."
Finally, try practicing radical acceptance. Too much of the time, says Fulreader, we send our children the message, "If you'll just be good, I'll be okay." Accept that your daughter, like our six-year-old, may be half-wolverine, half girl. Unconditional love will diffuse her wilder moments and help her become self-driven to make positive changes.
Don't forget to extend radical acceptance yourself, too. "Back when my child was in pre-school, I decided I would try to be a B parent," says Fulreader. It's just not possible or very fun to try to do it all, and perfectly, all the time. Sometimes we make terrible mistakes—like handing hot soup to our daughter in the backseat instead of taking ten minutes to stop driving. The important thing is to let go of guilt and focus instead on what's right in front of us: our children.
After Pippa's accident, our E.R. doctor friend came over to help. The burns looked terrible and she was in a lot of pain, but he told us her legs would heal well, given a little time. So we canceled our ski plans and stayed home for a rare rest weekend. We made Valentine’s Day cards and went to the movies and scrambled up the rock ledge and had milkshakes. Slowing down was like taking a long, deep breath—exactly what we needed when we needed it most.