Finding the Right Balance for Our Children

Deanna Macioce, MS, OTR/L

Sitting on a bench at the playground, I observe the children playing each in their own way. As both a parent and an occupational therapist, I am always intrigued to study how children play. Some are swinging, while others attempt to master the monkey bars, and there are those running and having a mulch battle, and finally I see my son climbing to the top of the playground apparatus to stand as if he just conquered Mount Everest. Enter the vision of my “angel and devil” characters sitting on my shoulders; however, mine are the characters of “mom and OT.”

As a mom, I want to yell that he needs to get down, but then my OT-wired brain tells me he needs to climb. He needs to work on his coordination and strength, and he seeks out proprioceptive play. How often we all feel the struggle of what is right when parenting our children.

Parenting these days is tough. With all the media and ways that we obtain our information, it seems as if there is a flood of advice on how to raise our children. The funny part is, it often contradicts itself and leaves parents in a tailspin.

What do your children eat? How long do you let them sit in front of a screen? What activities do you have them in? These are just some of the questions that make us twitch inside, not sure how to answer. Parenting in this age is tough on its own, but walk in the shoes of parenting the child with sensory processing difficulties, anxiety, ADHD, or any other special need. These parents are torn even more, because for some of them, going against the recommendations of society works best for their children.

What is important is to focus on the individual and what he needs within the constraints of what is expected in society. Regardless of whether we are watching a child on the playground or in the classroom, we need to focus on balance. You may have the child who loves to read, but if that is all she chooses to do, her opportunities to interact with others, move her body, or explore something new are limited. Here are just a few key areas that need to be balanced.

Movement—Children require free movement to explore and self-learn. In so doing, they are developing coordination, strength, hand-eye coordination as well as other skills important to overall development. But children also need to know how to be able to sit and demonstrate some self-control for periods at a time. For some, this may require some environment adaptations to help achieve focus and attention.

Screen Time—There is so much value to what technology offers, but ensuring that it does not become the focus of your child’s play is important. Children need to be able to self-entertain and do not need ongoing, overly visual stimulation. In addition, there is a benefit for children to learn “old school” ways of obtaining information, such as using a dictionary or encyclopedia. It is not always about speed. Having them have to use skills such as alphabetizing to find a word or subject matter, as well as the fine motor and visual skills to flip through the books, offers a great deal of benefit.

Handwriting—Children need to be able to motor plan and use their fine motor and visual perceptual skills to write, both in cursive and printing. Producing work that is messy or incorrect helps them work on self-correcting and neatness. However. the ease of using a computer also helps work on motor memory skills and dexterity skills while producing neat, easy-to-read work.

Play—Children need the time to play, whether it is with toys, art and craft materials, sporting equipment, or just plain imaginative play. This allows them the opportunity to develop the skills they need for learning and socializing. However, participating in structured activities such as sports, instrument playing, or groups such as scouting encourage following directions, socializing with others, and being a part of a team.

As parents, it is our role to not “just” fit into what society wants for our child, but to learn what our child needs. This does not mean that we fight every guideline and rule, because balance includes following rules, being well-behaved, and having manners. However, children need to treated individually so that they can be encouraged to step out of their comfort zones and master their own Mount Everest.