Recently, a conversation during my son’s ballet class caught me off guard: A fellow parent shared her Sunday schedule, how she whisks her child from ballet straight to swimming—an 18-minute walk if you make perfect time—for back-to-back classes with start and end times that overlap. Impressive, I originally thought. She’s really checking the boxes and exposing her kid to so much. That is, until I witnessed her battle said kid in the door as ballet was beginning. Let’s just say…he wasn’t having it.
I don’t know her well enough to call her a tiger mom, but I’ve realized that, when it comes to kid activities, I aspire to be the opposite: a jellyfish parent.
Jellyfish parenting is a term I discovered thanks to another mom’s Google search: It’s about being boneless and endlessly flexible, and when it comes to scheduling your child, taking your cues from them.
To be clear, I’m no laid-back saint. I’ve been there, done that with lining up extracurriculars for my almost five-year-old. Ballet! Tennis! Swimming! I’ve even contemplated the impossible logistics of taking him straight from 3:30 school dismissal to an ocean-themed art class that starts five minutes later. But while there certainly are advantages to broadening horizons at an early age—I’ve written about them—I firmly believe that happiness and enjoyment for all parties has to be my true north.
For example, my son loved splashing in the pool over the summer, plus swimming is in an essential life skill, so I signed him up for a highly coveted weekend swim class slot. He was giddy about it right up until we entered the lobby. Then he launched into the meltdown of the century, leaving me mortified and frustrated at the scene we were causing, so much so that I hurried him away as fast as we entered.
This isn’t to say we gave up. Instead, we took a two-month pause—luckily, this school allows makeup lessons—while we assessed our son’s interest and readiness level. (Ultimately, he decided to go, and now loves it.) Of course I was disappointed in the moment; I had spent an arm and a leg on those classes, damnit. But as parents, re-centering our mindset on the true goal (his enjoyment!) and giving ourselves permission to explore our options was freeing.
Bottom line: The jellyfishing worked.
Still, Kristene Geering, director of education at Parent Lab, says that the core value of the ‘jellyfish’ approach is much simpler: It’s about practicing the art of really tuning into your kid. “While interesting and fun, kids really don’t need violin/swimming/martial arts lessons,” she says. “Parents often realize the basics like food, shelter and physical safety, but miss out on one that is equally important—emotional security.”
In other words, if we’re always running from one thing to the next and in a constant state of activity-induced anxiety, our kids pick up on that. It also limits our ability to appreciate them for who they are—their likes, their dislikes, their quirks.
“A solid foundation with a parent, meaning a child that truly feels seen, helps kids regulate their emotions more easily,” Geering adds. “Investing money in activities can be valuable and enrich our children’s lives, but if that comes at the expense of our relationship, we’re setting them and ourselves up for unnecessary pain.”
At the end of the day, it’s about finding a happy medium. Yes, it’s healthy to push children to test the waters and see things through, but an authoritarian mindset is perhaps too hard-core. Instead, I’d rather make like the jellyfish and float and blob where my son leads me, sometimes exploring the dark, cold depths and sometimes beaching ourselves on warm, sandy shores. (On second thought, maybe I should sign him up for that ocean art class, after all...)