By David Elkins, published on January 1, 2003 - last reviewed on August 4, 2010
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 resume's so they'll have an edge when they apply for college."
Other child experts echo Rosenfeld's concerns. Andre 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.
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.
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.
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 among 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.