A few decades ago, you might have been the girl who spent the majority of her time digging in the backyard or coloring with crayons. You might have had the occasional ballet or piano lessons, but nothing too rigorous. You rode your bicycle in the afternoons but always came back in time for a family dinner at seven o’clock. You weren’t the typical overscheduled child often talked about today.
This is the idyllic story of “the good old days.” Now, you hear about kids chauffeured from soccer practice to tutoring to music class. Every day of the week is packed with events or commitments. Weekends aren’t any better, even with both parents home.
Me? My family’s schedule tends to be more relaxed and we haven’t raised the typical overscheduled child. For one thing, my son hasn’t expressed interest in (or perhaps knowledge of) classes or sports. I haven’t been too eager to sign my one-year-old twins for Gymboree or swim classes yet. And I like keeping our weekends relatively relaxed.
That doesn’t mean we spend our days at home. On weekends, we’ve visited farms, museums and beaches. And we attend birthday parties and family gatherings. Maybe just not three in one day.
What about scheduled activities and the overscheduled child?
I’ve learned it’s too easy to judge at first glance. You see a father push his daughter to pursue swimming and assume he’s got her on lock down. Or a stay-at-home mom who shuffles her kids from class to class all week must have no sense of family balance.
It’s too easy to place a label without glancing at the reasons and benefits parents and kids derive from participating in activities.
Still, it’s happening: more so than before, the overscheduled child is becoming more common. Let’s look at a few reasons why:
The rise of the overscheduled child
We’re having fewer kids.
Before modern parenthood, parents bore kids one right after the other. These days, we’re having fewer kids and can devote more time to each one than had we had more. We simply have more time to dedicate hours to our children’s pursuits because there’s less of them to contend with.
Our kids don’t play with neighborhood kids.
If you’re like me, you grew up playing with the neighborhood kids. I even lived next door to my cousins, giving me an extra two playmates in addition to my own siblings.
Families, however, have since sprawled across America, with more and more people living farther apart. We’re also more concerned with our children’s safety where sending our kids to neighbors’ homes doesn’t exactly sit too well with us.
However, we then realize our kids still need to socialize. How do we remedy this lack of social interaction? Through organized events—mommy groups, sports, summer camps.
We want to enrich our kids.
Perhaps the biggest reason we plan organized events for our kids is the desire to offer enrichment activities. We’re at a crossroads with our kids: we don’t know just yet what their knack is, so we prepare them for any possibility. Maybe he’d like chess, or art, or music, so let’s try them all.
Or we assume kids have a window of opportunity, so the first sign of promise—He can really pitch!—and we sign our kids up to fine-tune that skill.
Our parents didn’t have this inclination in the past, and certainly not with the same fervor as we do today. As parents, we’re navigating through all the possibilities and trying to open the world to our kids so that they can experience new things and hone their skills.
We actually enjoy providing our kids with activities. We like coaching soccer or cheering them on in the sidelines. Our kids like coming home from art class with their latest creation. Their days are filled with more purpose.
And this is why it’s not so simple to cast kids as over-scheduled because they’re involved in more than one activity and attend parties on the weekends. Just as with many things in parenting, keeping a packed schedule has its pros and cons.
Organized events offer structure to our kids’ days. They provide community and a support system for both parents and kids. They offer a sense of identity. They allow our kids to develop grit and character.
Weekend activities boast their own benefits. They expose our kids to worlds they wouldn’t have known. They provide a change to the regularity of the week. They’re fun, especially among family and friends.
What then should parents watch out for with kids and their schedules?
The downsides of the overscheduled child
Kids don’t have enough downtime.
Three-thirty in the afternoon is my son’s “kick off your shoes” time. We just got home from school, and the boy has zero interest to accompany me to run errands, much less do anything regimented. Instead, his after school routine usually includes a snack and a chance to fiddle with a current interest: Play Doh, paint, building toys.
Kids with too much on their plate can forget what downtime feels like. Constantly on the go, they don’t know how to tolerate boredom, much less what to do to fill their time. They need external stimulation to feel entertained—a pack of crayons just won’t do.
Activities cut into family time.
I knew a mom who confessed that her kids have been eating fast food for dinner in the car on their way home from soccer practice. “There’s just not enough time to eat dinner, what with practice and then homework when we get home.”
Schedules aside, only 24 hours fit in the day. Pack those in with too many activities, and something’s got to give. Sometimes that’s a healthy dinner. Or even time together to eat at the table. Or school work. The overscheduled child is feeling the brunt of a packed schedule.
Kids aren’t allowed to simply play.
I read somewhere (this is the problem when you read too many books and forget which author or study said this) that kids younger than middle school shouldn’t be involved in organized sports.
Yup, I was shocked too.
Especially when you see just how many little leagues and soccer teams catering to kids as young as four-years-old have sprouted, not to mention how sports-centric many of our schools are.
But here’s their argument: Kids fourth grade and younger benefit more with “free play.” Sure, hand them a few baseballs and bats, but let them determine the rules of the games. They’ll learn about social interactions, resolving conflict, developing their imagination and being more physically active when left to their own devices.
I’m sure a few of us can remember playing with friends or siblings, whether it was pick-up sports or detective or chasing the bad guys where we bounced ideas from one another. One minute this is “base” and then the next it’s the tree and if you cross this line you’re out and all the glorious rules and fun kids make up on their own.
My son mentions something similar at his preschool. He and a few friends play “good guys and bad guys” and he talks about the house being the safe place and that corner being the “jail.”
Now imagine little league. More often than not, it’s adult-driven. Adults direct kids where to go, they implement the rules, they decide when someone’s out and when someone’s safe. And the kids listen to the directions and follow.
This is all actually good… for older kids, particularly high school kids. They thrive under direction during a time when they need that regimen.
Younger kids, not so much. Plus, kids who start later in team sports (like in middle school) have more interest and investment in the sport well into high school versus the kid who started earlier and whose interest will likely waver once she enters high school. Jay Atkinson, author of an article titled “How parents are ruining youth sports,” writes:
By age 15, as many as 80 percent of these youngsters have quit, according to the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine.
Me? I wouldn’t be too strict. If my son expresses interest in team sports or groups in elementary school, I would support him. I’d have to see the coaching style and they can’t treat kids like boot camp (which I’ve witnessed at our local parks). I’d like the kids to have some input. And I wouldn’t sign him up for too many activities.
But I’m not in a rush—I’ll wait for his cue to let me know he’s interested in the first place.
Too much focus on the kids.
Remember your life before kids? What did you do back then? Have your hobbies revolved around your kids where, if the kids suddenly declared zero interest in that activity, you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself?
While kids do and should consume our time, we can’t surrender our every effort and minute towards them. You and your partner have your needs too, as do your household, your finances and your health.
We invest so much into our kids that we forget they’re still a part of a larger whole—a family, a community. And we sometimes lose ourselves.
So much so that…
It’s not about the kids anymore.
And this herein is where the real problem lies. This is what we should really watch out for: when activities become more about us than our kids.
Our control and anxiety over our child’s potential. Our projections and dreams that may not be the same as the ones our kids harbor. The undue pressure we burden on our kids.
As Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege says in her book:
There is a world of difference between the experience of having a parent who is happy when you are chosen for the chorus of a show and the parent who says, ‘Aren’t you even good enough for a small speaking role?’ Holding high standards for our children is not the problem, but humiliating and disparaging them when they fail to meet expectations is.
Parents know best… but sometimes we don’t. And while we want our kids to excel in everything under the sun and push them to pursue piano and study chess and master tae kwan do, the activities become more about our desires.
Yes, we want our kids to get ahead, but at what cost?
And how can we balance the benefits of extra-curricular activities?
A balancing act
Even if your child participates in many activities, carve out some downtime during her day. This can be the hour after you get home from school where she’s free to hole up in her room and do whatever she wants. Maybe it’s while you’re preparing dinner and the kids are sprawled in the living room, playing or reading. Give the kids a chance to mellow out, be bored, relax.
Spend time together as a family.
Sure, you may spend time together on the soccer field or practicing for the spelling bee, but what about spending time doing simple things? Things that aren’t about “getting ahead” or “being enriched” or even pursuing a hobby. Things like going out to get ice cream, or making a kite, or doing silly dance moves in the living room, or listening to music.
Ask yourself if your kids are truly happy.
How do your kids look after a game or a lesson? Do they look refreshed, happy? How do they act before practice or class? Are they excited? Ask yourself whether your kids are genuinely enjoying these activities and not doing them out of obligation or to please you.
And don’t simply sign them up for various activities to buffer a college application (they’re probably better off having one or two genuine passions than 10 clubs they could care less about).
As in most things parenting, balance is key. Scheduled activities for kids boasts many benefits, such as building character, grit and perseverance, not to mention the many friendships for both kids and parents. Having scheduled plans also builds a routine into our days and weeks, as well as a social life many of us crave and want for ourselves and our kids.
At the same time, we also need to examine our motives and results. Why are we scheduling activities to begin with? Does this commitment add value to our family? Are we enjoying ourselves? Do we have time to be a family?
With a proper balance, we can reap the benefits of scheduled activities along with days with nothing to do whatsoever.
Get more tips about family life:
- Homework Tips for Parents: Crucial Mistakes You Should Definitely Avoid
- 6 Useful Back to School Tips for Parents and Kids
- How to Keep Your Child Learning in the Summer
- How to Raise a Smart Child
- How to Prepare Your Child for College (Because It’s Not Too Early)
Your turn: What is your kids’ schedule like? Do you have an overscheduled child? Do you participate in organized activities? What are the benefits of an overscheduled child? What are the benefits of having an open calendar? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
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