Are We Pushing Our Kids Too Hard?

Is your kid stressed? Cutting back on extra-curricular activities may be the solution.

By David Elkins, published on January 1, 2003 - last reviewed on May 3, 2005

The perfect picture of a balanced childhood, one in which our kids
go to school, do a little homework and play fort, is a myth for many
youngsters. More and more children, like adults, are involved in far too
many activities.

Nine-year-old Kevin* was anxious, having trouble sleeping and
complaining that he was tired all the time. A medical exam revealed no
physical problems, so the pediatrician suggested his mother talk to a
psychologist. When we met, I asked about Kevin's schedule. His mother
told me that, in addition to school, he was involved in three team
sports, church activities, scouts and had piano lessons twice a week.
Finding nothing else to explain the child's symptoms, I suggested his
stressful schedule might be the cause.

His mother looked at me as though I were crazy. "Give me a break,"
she said. "Kevin doesn't have any stress. He loves everything he's
doing." She, too, was under pressure. She worked full-time, and because
her husband's job required him to travel, she was responsible for most of
the household chores and child care. Yet despite her own grueling
schedule, she had enrolled Kevin in a dizzying number of extracurricular
activities. "My parents never did anything with me," she explained. "So I
want Kevin to know I'm there for him. No matter what it takes, he's going
to have a good childhood."

But Kevin wasn't having a good childhood. He was overscheduled and
on the brink of clinical depression. When I talked to him on his own, he
confided that he missed playing with his friends in the neighborhood.
They used to ride bikes, have water-balloon fights and build forts out of
cardboard boxes. Now there wasn't time for those activities. "I really
like being in sports and everything," he said. "But not all that
much."

Kevin is not unusual. Millions of children across America feel
overwhelmed and pressured. Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., a child psychiatrist
and author of
The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting
Trap
, believes that enrolling children in too many activities
is a nationwide problem. "Overscheduling our children is not only a
widespread phenomenon, it's how we parent today," he says. "Parents feel
remiss that they're not being good parents if their kids aren't in all
kinds of activities. Children are under pressure to achieve, to be
competitive. I know sixth-graders who are already working on their
résumés so they'll have an edge when they apply for
college."

Other child experts echo Rosenfeld's concerns. Andrée Aelion
Brooks, author and former New York Times journalist, was one of the first to
call attention to the overscheduled child. For her book Children of Fast-Track Parents she interviewed 80
mental health professionals and educators, in addition to 60 parents and
some 100 children. Brooks concluded that exposing children to
extracurricular activities too early is not necessarily a good idea. Some
children are not able to function well with so many responsibilities and
can develop stress disorders.

"Middle-class children in America are so overscheduled that they
have almost no 'nothing time.' They have no time to call on their own
resources and be creative. Creativity is making something out of nothing,
and it takes time for that to happen," says Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D., a
developmental and clinical psychologist and professor at The Wright
Institute in Berkeley, California. "In our efforts to produce Renaissance
children who are competitive in all areas, we squelch creativity."

Early-childhood-education specialist Peggy Patten, M.A., agrees and
notes that children today have many wonderful opportunities, but they
need time to explore things in depth. When they are involved in too many
different things, they sacrifice breadth for depth.

"Many children today don't have time to breathe. Parents think
their kids will grow up and remember all the wonderful activities they
were involved in," adds Melanie Coughlin, M.A., a licensed marriage and
family therapist and adjunct professor at California's Pepperdine
University. Coughlin, who counsels parents and children in private
practice, thinks children "will remember how exhausted they were and how
their parents were constantly yelling at them to hurry up and get ready
for the next activity."

Stress: Is it always a bad thing?

Stress is a natural response that occurs when we are threatened or
overwhelmed. Imagine you are on safari and an elephant charges you at
full speed. Your body would react with what has been called the
"fight-flight" response. Your heart rate shoots up, adrenaline floods
your bloodstream, your muscles tense and you learn that you can run a lot
faster than you thought. Such an experience would be intensely stressful,
but your body's response would be normal and might even save your
life.

Even in ordinary situations, stress is not always bad. Hans Selye,
M.D., one of the pioneers in stress research, believed that moderate
amounts of stress are actually good for us. He described two kinds of
stress: eustress and distress. Eustress is the pleasant stress we feel
when we confront the normal challenges of life. A child who enjoys
soccer, for example, may thrive on the pressure associated with practice
and games. Distress, on the other hand, occurs when we feel overwhelmed.
The same child who thrives on soccer may become overwhelmed if he is also
involved in four or five other activities.

What Johnny is missing

Not only are overscheduled children prone to stress, but they often
miss out on important childhood experiences. Here are some
examples:

Time to Play in a Natural, Creative Way

Unstructured play allows children to pursue their interests,
express their personalities and learn how to structure their time. Play
is the natural mode of learning for young children, but when their lives
are dominated by adult-organized activities, there may be little time
left to just be kids.

Family Relationships

Children need downtime with parents -- time to relax, talk, read,
play games and just hang out. Families that are constantly running from
one extracurricular activity to the next have little opportunity for
these experiences.

Extended-Family Relationships

Kids need contact with extended family. It may not always take a
village to raise a child, but such family relationships can give children
a sense of who they are and a network of social support. Children whose
calendars are filled with extracurricular activities may have trouble
finding time for these relationships.

Self-Awareness

Children need time to read, write, think, dream, draw, build,
create, fantasize and explore special interests. Such activities promote
self-awareness by helping children clarify who they are and what they are
truly interested in. Children who are involved in too many programmed
activities may have little time for these experiments in
self-discovery.

Why do we push so hard?

The truth is, most parents have good intentions. They enroll their
children in activities because they want them to have a rich, happy
childhood. They sacrifice their own time to make sure their children are
at practices and competitions. Of course, these parents love their
children, and the last thing they would want is for them to feel
stressed.

Yet for some, the motivation is not always noble. Some parents push
their children to succeed in the interest of their own egos. Others use
their children to relive their own childhood dreams. Still others are
motivated by social pressure. Notes one father, "All the kids on our
block are involved in four or five various activities. If I took my kids
out, they'd feel left out, and I'd feel like a jerk around the other
parents."

The grandfather of four overscheduled grandchildren reflects on his
own childhood: "When I was a boy, I played football at school and a
little baseball in the summer. That was it. I never felt deprived or
thought my parents didn't love me. Today, it's different. I think a lot
of young parents are scared to death that their kids will grow up and
tell some psychotherapist, 'I'm here because my parents didn't love me.'
They limited my extracurricular activities.'"

What can parents do?

Perhaps the place to begin is to lighten up. When my wife, Sara,
attended our granddaughter's soccer game, she was amazed at the
seriousness of some parents. "Go for the ball!" "Run for the goal!"
yelled several fathers at the sidelines. Halfway through, two obviously
tired little girls stopped in the middle of the field and began talking
as the game continued around them. "These two girls were just being kids
in the midst of all the frenzy," she says.

One recovering soccer mom says Jessica*, her 8-year-old, was
exhausted from too many activities. Her schedule was filled with dance,
ice skating, piano lessons, swim team and soccer. "When the headaches
started, that was the last straw," says her mom, who took her out of
everything. When Jessica felt better, she chose one activity: swim team.
"She's a normal kid again, and we actually have time to be a
family."

Taking a child out of all activities is quite dramatic and not
always necessary. For most families, simply limiting the amount of time
spent in extracurricular activities may be all that's needed to eliminate
a child's stress and put family life back on an even keel.

It's also important to remember that extracurricular activities per
se are not the problem. As Maureen Weiss, Ph.D., at the University of
Oregon, and other researchers have shown, children who are involved in
such activities reap important benefits. Involvement in sports, for
example, is correlated with higher levels of self-confidence and academic
performance, more involvement with school, fewer behavior problems and
lower likelihood of taking drugs or engaging in risky sexual
behavior.

Such findings have inspired towns and cities across the country to
support extracurricular activities. Businesses and private organizations
have pitched in to buy uniforms, equipment and other supplies. During the
past 10 years, the extracurricular establishment has grown into a major
cultural force, shaping and defining childhood and family life.

But have we gone to an extreme? What happens to children who are
involved in so many activities that they feel overwhelmed? What happens
to marriages when spouses have no time for each other? What happens to
family life? These are important questions that research must
answer.

In the meantime, we might do well by following Aristotle's adage:
everything in moderation. Child experts acknowledge that extracurricular
activities can be a positive force in children's lives, but they also
agree that overscheduling can put children at risk. Balance is
key.

Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., the leading expert on overscheduled
children, is doing something about the problem. He and his colleagues
have organized National Family Night, for which Americans are being
encouraged to set one night a year aside for family. Hopefully, we will
turn this time -- without scheduled activities -- into a monthly
event.

The entire town of Ridgewood, New Jersey, is addressing the issue
in its own way. Inspired by Rosenfeld's work, social worker Marcia Marra,
M.A., organized Ridgewood Family Night. With the support of school
administrators and religious leaders, the town cancelled all sports
activities, homework assignments and even religious classes so families
could spend time together on March 26, 2002. Some 91 percent of families
took part in the event, and 89 percent of that group are in favor of
another Family Night next year.

"Parents need to relax. Slow down. Activities are fine, but don't
go over the top. Research says that what children need most are
relationships, not activities," says Rosenfeld. "Focus on building
meaningful relationships with your children, not becoming their
chauffeur."

* Identities have been changed.