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Overscheduled Kids

I remember looking at the clock, and it was 4:03pm when my cell phone rang. I didn’t want to answer it. I was in the midst of the daily shuffle of homework and getting two out of three kids ready for baseball practice. But it was my husband’s number, and he doesn’t usually call at that time of day. When I picked up it wasn’t the voice I’ve known so well for 17 years but a co-worker who relayed in a measured tone that my husband had collapsed and was being transported to the emergency room.
The shotgun schedule of the evening vanished in an instant as we pointed the SUV in the direction of the hospital. While I was frightened, not knowing all the details yet, I had a pretty good hunch that my husband had succumbed to the exhaustion of topping off a demanding career with coaching responsibilities for three Little League teams. It turns out he was suffering from vertigo – cause unknown.
We both knew the cause.
Overscheduling has become so mythologized in today’s kid culture it’s almost the Loch Ness Monster of parenting: Is it real and should we care? Parents I talked to know they’re busy, busier than their own parents ever were, yet they’re loath to stop it. Even to pen this story I had to grind out the time – not easy and, quite frankly, I’m in a phase of relative underscheduling (refer to vertigo episode).
But this is one beast worth wrestling, if not for our own health, for our children’s well-being and future happiness.
“I am my schedule”
If there is one place where overscheduling flourishes in its full glory, it’s at an exclusive private school where opportunities for extracurricular and sports know no bounds. Jeff Baldridge, Ph.D., served as on-staff clinical psychologist for six years at St. Mark’s School. He knows firsthand the difference in the behaviors of an overscheduled child and an appropriately scheduled child. Part of the challenge, Baldridge says, is the vast amount of opportunities available to children, from fencing and football to Mandarin and modern dance. Parents can’t resist the urge to make sure their children take advantage of everything they can possibly squeeze in.
In some ways, it’s become the universal siren call to success, both for a parent and a child. Busy is synonymous with important, chosen, gifted. Anxious, driven parents are even paying for test preparation to help kids ace (meaning out-maneuver) psychological exams used to measure private school admissions. Baldridge assures that it’s healthy to try new things but not at the expense of overwhelming a child and, by association, the family.
“Saying, ‘We’re going to try it’ is a good thing,” offers Baldridge, who is now in private practice and managing the same problem at home with his 16-year-old son. “But when it becomes, ‘Let’s try everything this year,’ that’s not beneficial.”
He says kids in his practice often confide, "I am my schedule." And we’re not just talking about double-booked tweens and teens. Baldridge says even preschoolers are feeling the crunch of extracurricular endeavors, because parents are jockeying early for placement in private schools (and even looking ahead to college). Problem is, these kids don’t know what to do when they have free time. The parents are overbooked too, so it’s easy to assume kids can handle a similar load. “But they are children,” Baldridge stresses. “They are not little adults.”
“Everyone is doing it”
Why does enrichment seem so sacred – something to be pursued even at the risk of finances and sanity? Recent research on the issue of childhood scheduling reveals a mixed bag of results. On the one hand experts such as Andrea Mata, who studied highly involved children as a doctoral student at Kent State University, report that the small number of kids who are actually racking up hours of structured activities tend to be more adaptive and high-functioning. Meanwhile, Steven D. Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, says that he and another economist could find no evidence that cramming in every conceivable activity correlates at all with academic success.
Baldridge is even more frank. “Parents don’t care about the research. They are operating off of a ‘how do we get into private school or preferred college’ mentality.’”
Dr. Catherine Nicholas, a pediatrician at Cook Children’s Medical Center, sees little ones in her practice who exhibit the vague malaise of structure gone crazy – and sometimes the opposite, a complete lack of activity; there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. She cites preschools that require testing as feeding into the frenzy. “There is this implication that if you don’t do all these things that your children will fall behind and not get into college,” she says. “And that’s just not true. It’s just as beneficial for the family to have time to bond together.”
Nicholas says it’s important to remember that younger children can’t tell you when they’re stressed or overwhelmed. Instead, what parents need to be on the lookout for are “symptomatic complaints” such as headaches and stomachaches that are not linked to a cause. Teens, on the other hand, might be more prone to anxiety and depression, though there is no definitive link between overscheduling and mental health issues.
Baldridge says he can spot an overscheduled child just by the way she walks – slumped, head down. The child begins to act out for no reason; her grades and enthusiasm slide. She’s unfocused, scattered, can’t succeed in any one area. Her symptoms can mimic the signs of ADHD, and it’s not uncommon for her to be medicated simply because she’s overtaxed. “This is a child who really doesn’t have a good time ever,” Baldridge says. But, “everyone is doing it,” he adds, so scheduling mania persists.
Overscheduling takes on new meaning in organized sports. Cosmo Clarke, director of athletic development for The Sportsplex at Valley View, says this is a hot topic in his training facility, which offers professional coaching for all sports. Often he sees parents struggling with when to say no. While he recommends pursuing one sport per season (including a sensible personal training program), it’s not uncommon for kids to be doing two sports – and some up to three or four per season. The problem with that, Clarke says, is something’s going to give: “The child is being pulled back and forth and it’s tough on the finances, tough on the coach and the team.”
By age 13 or 14 kids start dropping out of sports in droves, mostly because they’ve been “pushed too hard.” They simply burn out and want to spend time with their friends, Clarke explains.
“Impossible to escape”
Lillian Sandel used to be the kind of mom who booked her two children’s free time with abandon. Each played two sports a season, sometimes three. “My goal was that they would know how to play every sport,” she says. She found herself girding for the family’s “logistical supply chain” by early morning, which led to afternoons stuck in the car with no break from one activity to the next. Each night the family would arrive home at 9pm exhausted and hungry and still staring down a pile of homework.
Sandel says she compensated by not requiring regular chores so her son and daughter would have time to “be a kid.” She also didn’t schedule play dates, preferring to let her children seek impromptu gatherings with neighborhood friends. But eventually even Sandel, who admits she had to crack the whip to motivate her kids, started to snap. By plunging every ounce of energy into nightly extracurriculars, her marriage began to unravel. She and her husband have separated – “in large part because of me putting the kids’ activities first,” she admits.
“It impacts lives. It definitely does,” she says. “You come to a point where enough’s enough.”
So, she limited (“as much for me as for them”) each child to one sport per season. For the first time in seven years they didn’t have back-to-back weekend games. It’s not necessarily a comfortable place – yet. “I wake up and I feel lost … like we need to be somewhere,” she says.
A new phenomenon developed in the place of relentless scheduling: She started filling the free time with structure. For instance, she plugged in tutoring where her daughter once had team practice. “I cut back on Harper’s schedule, or so I thought, but she seems to be getting busier and busier as the school year progresses,” Sandel says. “I personally think it is impossible to escape overscheduling a child. So often when you make an effort to cut back, something invariably takes the empty spot like tutoring or school activities that you had no clue your child was interested in.”
So, when is it all too much? Every child is different, Nicholas says. And there is a wide range of what kids can handle. But the average kid spending every single night in a scheduled activity is probably too much. “Do parents have the time to do all of this?” Baldridge asks. “What’s the impact on the family? And, more important, what’s the impact on how we are interacting with our kids?”
Talk to your child, Nicholas stresses. Make sure the activity is pleasing to them and not just to you. “The truth is if we are overscheduled ourselves, the child is most definitely feeling it,” Baldridge says. “The necessity of balance comes down to the physical health of the family.”
It’s not about a number
Becci Rollins, Ph.D., coordinator of counseling at Carroll ISD, says overscheduling is prevalent in her district. She advises parents to factor in three things before adding to a child’s plate: how much time is needed for 1) proper sleep, 2) nutritious meals and 3) studying. “We want kids to be busy, challenged and active but also healthy,” she says.
To lend support to parents, Carroll ISD partners with SPARK, Students and Parents Against Risks to our Kids, a grass-roots effort to inform the community about potential dangers facing kids, including overscheduling. “Our parents know they can come to us when they are worried about their child,” Rollins says. “They are cognizant of wanting to do what’s right for the child.” And often that means they can’t do it all.
Baldridge advises planning for one special activity other than school and one play date each week. Parents can add on other pursuits based on the child’s needs and personality. “If they are hungry for it, they will enjoy sitting with the teacher after school studying geography. You know the difference because those kinds of kids push you,” he says. But if your child doesn’t want to wake up in the morning, resists doing homework, becomes withdrawn or easily frustrated, it’s time to re-evaluate. Do you let your child quit mid-season? Not necessarily, Baldridge says, but you do have to address whether this is an activity that needs to continue.
If parents are having a hard time discerning what’s the right amount of activity or can't agree, Baldridge recommends that they seek the opinions of teachers and coaches to find out if their child has athletic talent or really needs academic tutors. “Families who do the best see their kids for who they are,” Baldridge says.
One child may have more energy than her sibling. It’s OK to schedule them differently based on their temperaments. “It isn’t about the number of activities at all,” Baldridge adds. “It’s about discovering what’s unique about each child.”
Gift of boredom
Kim John Payne, M.Ed., author of Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids, takes a global perspective on the issue of overscheduling. He urges parents to think about the future of the deconstructing workplace. In order for our children to succeed, they will need to possess creativity, inventiveness, adaptability and nimbleness. “So why do we want to give kids a super-scheduled and structured life? Why are we still raising kids for the 1950s?” asks Payne, who is a consultant and trainer to more than 110 U.S. private and public schools.
Modern parents, he stresses, really just want to get it right. “Our motives are spot on. We all just want our children to do well in life,” he says. But while the motive may be genuine, the vehicle is way off. “The danger in overscheduling and giving kids everything is that it actually undermines creativity,” Payne says. “It makes kids entitled, weak and it disempowers their will.”
Instead, he advises parents to give their children the “gift of boredom” in an effort to ignite ingenuity and novelty. Having the time to create forts and invent games develops the front and middle brain centers (hence empathy), which is needed for success in the workplace and in relationships. “That does not happen in a super-scheduled kid,” says Payne, who, like Baldridge, advises that parents fill a child’s afterschool schedule a maximum of one or two nights a week.
To keep things in perspective, Baldridge adds, “You don’t have to find out in grade school everything you are good at.”
Busy and I know it
For some parents, supersized scheduling suits them just fine. Brenda Jenkins* (who preferred not to use her real name) has two daughters, ages 12 and 13, who are booked with cheerleading every night after school until 5:30pm. Tuesdays and Thursdays the girls add soccer and tumbling to the mix, arriving home after 7:30pm. On weeknights when there’s a football game, the girls might not be home until 10:30pm. Plus there are games on the weekend. They also participate in choir, and Jenkins is considering tutoring for one daughter. The girls get straight A’s in school.
Jenkins acknowledges she nudged the girls to try out for their current sports, but one daughter became so enamored with soccer that she “gets as excited about a game as Christmas.” The kids don’t complain about their structured days, though late nights spent catching up on homework can be a challenge. Jenkins’ husband pitches in when she gets into a bind with carpooling, and the family sneaks in downtime together during breaks.
Jenkins, who admits she wasn’t as busy as a child – but wishes she had some of the same opportunities back then – knows their schedule sounds intimidating. But she contends that the girls “need to be busy with stuff they like.”
“It works just fine for our family,” she insists.
Even if we admit we’re overscheduled, how do we stop it – especially if our neighbors are keeping up a breakneck pace and looking good while doing it? It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day madness, but Baldridge says each family needs to decide, what’s our yardstick? Are we going to measure grades, activity, performance and, later, income? Or are we going to measure how happy we are in relationships?
“Nothing positive comes from comparing your child to others or comparing other families to yours,” Baldridge warns. “The best thing parents can do to teach their kids to resist peer pressure is by setting the example of resisting these comparisons themselves. When we encourage our kids to find and pursue their own interests and skills, they need less external motivation and therefore they have less stress.”
Like Sandel, our family cut back this past fall – to maintain health (my husband’s) and sanity (mine). We kept up baseball lessons once a week and art and tutoring. My kids had lots of downtime, and they made up kooky games (when I wasn’t fighting their urge to resort to video games). We had family dinners together nearly every night. We adopted a dog and took walks together. And, I hosted my first ever old-fashioned home birthday party. The stress level was low. No one ended up in the ER.
The only hitch? Their friends stayed just as busy, so they didn’t necessarily chalk up more play dates. And I’ll admit at times I felt guilty, edgy even, with the long hours of uneventfulness.
Now I fret about how we’ll maintain our newfound equipoise once baseball season ramps up. Maybe balance, like overscheduling itself, is a myth. Or perhaps it’s more realistic to let it ebb and flow.
But then I remembered what Payne said: It comes down to a lifestyle choice. Do you want to look at childhood as enrichment or a gently unfolding experience? I know my answer. Do you?
Brenda Jenkins is a pseudonym used at the source’s request.