As a suburban youth pastor in a context where nearly all of my students attend college, I witness every day the madness and fallout from the frenetic, overloaded schedules of these children. Parents feel helpless and trapped in this lifestyle, while kids are flat-out exhausted and overwhelmed. Three terms capture the tone of statements I hear from parents when they lament over the busyness of their family: robbery, obligation, and inadequacy.
Parents agonize over going weeks without one meal around the dinner table with all family members. They regret missing consecutive weeks of church while traveling to soccer tournaments. They languish as they want their child in a Bible study, but they cannot tell the football coach that small group comes before the pre-game meal or film study. Parents feel robbed of the vision they had of an intimate family that eats nightly meals around the table and went on walks to catch up on life. Instead, they’re trapped in a circus of carpool.
The vocabulary of fear and obligation dominates expressions I hear from parents when they lament over their child’s busyness. “Well, we have to do an ACT prep class, or else . . . we have to take a full load of AP classes or else . . . we have to play a sport to round out that college resume . . . Johnny has to be an Eagle Scout . . . we have to attend every event at the church.” This attitude suggests they face certain condemnation if they deviate from the cultural norms. Fear looms over the possibility a child may not maximize every minute of every day in the name of resume optimization and ultimate human development.
Furthermore, parents reveal a fear of inadequacy as they guide their children. On one hand they feel as if they are failing to maintain an intimate family unit, because their family runs ragged. Conversely, they feel damned if they do not provide their child with every advantage to achieve success in high school and beyond. It is as if they live cursed: either deny your child the opportunity of future success or board a non-stop treadmill.
Law and Gospel
From my perspective, the fundamental dynamic at the heart of this issue involves the tension between law and gospel. Whenever people use such language of obligation and inadequacy, one can suspect they are living under the law. In this context, the term “law” refers to an approach to life that involves constantly attempting to measure up to standards out of one’s own power and effort. Living under the law constitutes man’s natural mode. Before and even after we know Christ, we all instinctively try to prove ourselves. This mode of performance comes with no benefits. A person vacillates between self-righteousness (when he or she succeeds) or guilt and inadequacy (when one fails to measure up). Whether guilty or arrogant, everyone experiences exhaustion and burnout when living under the law.
In the case of over-scheduling, parents perceive a standard to which they and their children must meet. A child must experience success in academics, athletics, or the arts. For the child, admittance to the most prestigious, impressive college possible represents the standard. For the parents, they are expected to invest as much energy, time, and money as necessary to lead their child to optimal performance. The insane slate of activity constitutes the means that both parents and children exert in order to meet this standard.
If law underlies the misery of over-programmed families, then the gospel provides the antidote to counter it. Jesus says in John 10:10, “The thief comes to rob, kill, and destroy, but I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” The thief to which Jesus refers represents teachers of the law who promote performance-based religion. He says their message “robs, kills, and destroys.” I know many parents who feel as if living under the law as a family has robbed them of the family life they envisioned.
Christ contrasts the way of the life under the law, characterized by fear and obligation, against the way of following the Good Shepherd, a lifestyle of trust and rest in response to his love. Living under the gospel means one recognizes that the Jesus has lived perfectly and “laid down his life” on behalf of his sheep. Therefore, Jesus has measured up in every arena for every parent and child who has received his forgiveness and righteousness by faith.
Christ has set his followers free from social mandates. Parents can begin their escape from this high-pressured frenzy of over-scheduling by first embracing the counter-cultural nature of following Jesus and living in response to the gospel. A follower of Christ has been freed from any obligation except that blessed call to follow and obey Christ and his Word. Given the freedom from the law, which Christ has won for his people, Christian parents can say, “No! No! No!” to travel baseball, math tutors, ACT prep, personal trainers, and so on. Parents can call into question every activity because there is no obligation to conform to cultural expectations.
Such an approach of rejecting cultural expectation and trusting Christ’s discretion with how a family invests its time opens the door for a new way. Perhaps God will indeed call a child to the Olympic track of competitive gymnastics. At least a family will know that they walk in God’s will during the hours of practice required to fulfill this calling. And they will find that Christ calls them to a much more restful yoke than the one which the world mandates.