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Should You Unschedule Your Overscheduled Child?

I am known as the "Sleep Nazi" among my children’s friends and their parents, believing ample z’s are vital to childhood. I’ll do dinner at 4 or 7:30pm if it means we can all eat together, knowing this tops the list of expert advice. I try to buck conventional parenting wisdom that says a family is as old as its oldest child, making sure my 8-year-old isn’t sucked into my 11-year-old’s world of The Edge, the occasional PG-13 movie and cell phone envy.

So I am always taken aback when my calendar looks like this:
Monday: 4-9pm, rock climbing for Noah.
Tuesday: 5-8pm, rock climbing for Noah.
Wednesday: 5-6pm, guitar lessons for both boys; 6-8pm, football practice for Noah; 6-7:30pm, baseball practice for Sawyer.
Thursday: 5-8pm, rock climbing for Noah.
Friday: Third-grade lock-in at church.
Saturday: 10am-1pm, rock climbing for Noah; noon, Noah’s football game (conflict!).
Sunday: 1:30-3:30pm, football practice for Noah; 3:40pm, Sawyer’s baseball game; 6:45pm, cotillion.

In my defense, that was an unusually busy week during a misguided two-month period when we let our oldest son participate in rock climbing – which is more like a part-time job than a leisure activity – and football. That schedule, of course, doesn’t include school. Or dinners with friends, volunteer meetings, playdates (a term I once banned from our household because it made childhood feel so contrived). It also doesn’t include downtime, a word our kids may have to look up as a generational term they’ve heard of but can’t quite define.

The truth is children have 12 hours less free time each week than they did 30 years ago, reports a recent study by the University of Michigan. The researchers also found that the amount of homework for kids ages 6 to 9 has doubled since 1981. By age 11, 72 percent of American kids are playing at least one organized sport, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association’s 2008 “Sports Participation in America” survey.

The parenting section of any bookstore is filled with additional evidence of kids gone gonzo: The Hurried Child (which kicked it all off almost three decades ago), The Power of Play, Einstein Never Used Flashcards, The Case Against Homework, Reclaiming Childhood, Last Child in the Woods, The Over-Scheduled Child and The Pressured Child.

It seems clear that the pressure of childhood is the defining dilemma of our kids’ generation.

Stressed out at 6?

Michael Thompson, author of The Pressured Child, says the strain comes from many sources. It often comes from parents who are worried about their children’s economic futures. It comes from longer commute times to and from school, practices, lessons, games. It comes from taking these activities too seriously, turning a 30-minute piano lesson in someone’s living room into four-hour band practices and weekend gigs. It comes from sports, which have graduated from seasonal baseball practice once a week and a Saturday afternoon game to year-round select soccer practices four days a week. It comes from more homework, often starting in kindergarten and completed during the student’s commute to the next scheduled activity.

A child under too much demand – whether it comes from parents, teachers, coaches, or simply too little time to skim rocks in the lake – is fairly easy to spot. Stressed kids might start sleeping more. They might start sleeping less. Eating more. Eating less. They may get headaches, stomach aches, be moody, irritable, argumentative, fatigued or socially withdrawn.

Bruce Abel, a Plano psychologist who treats many children and adolescents (and, therefore, their parents), says he’s seen an increase in the amount of stress kids feel in the past 10 to 15 years.
 “We live in an area that’s very affluent with many successful people,” he observes. “Most successful people got that way because they are very goal oriented. I saw a family last week that has a first-grade child. When that child entered kindergarten, the teachers were very concerned that the child wasn’t reading. The pressure and the expectations are much more stringent and begin at an earlier age. Things have gotten so much more competitive. Take Plano high school kids. If they’re going to be in the top 10 percent, they have to have over a 4.0 average.”

And, when kids are done with their school day, sports kick in. Mark Hyman, author of Until It Hurts, a book about youth sports due out in April, finds it fascinating that participation in organized sports declines after age 11.

“Kids are turning away because we’re not giving them what they need or want,” he cautions. “They want to play, have fun with their friends and learn to get better at what they’re doing. We’ve re-engineered youth sports to meet our emotional needs. We’re into competition, so kids’ games have become highly competitive – private instruction, year-round training, travel teams for 8-year-olds.”

Let’s see. Private instruction for rock climbing. Check.Year-round training. Except for August, check. Travel for 8-year-olds. Well, Noah was 10.

That can’t be good.

The pressured parent

I admit to generally being a bit pious when it comes to this parenting elephant in the room. My children’s school doesn’t start homework until the fourth grade and, even then, we’re talking 20 minutes a few nights a week. My sons climb trees, roll in the mud and get 30 minutes of screen time a day a few days a week. I sometimes have to tell my 8-year-old he must put his book or drawing pad down to eat breakfast. And, my 11-year-old has a series of wedgie videos he and his friends spend hours creating and taping in our backyard.

But I lost a lot of credibility in my quest for the laidback childhood when my then 10-year-old started competitive rock climbing last year.

He climbs with a team based in Carrollton – the best indoor rock climbing team in the nation (and 30 minutes from home without traffic). The kids on the team are phenomenal, as are the parents and the coach. First he climbed two weeknights – right up to but not interrupting family dinners. An adjustment but doable.

Then, we threw in a Saturday practice and a few weekend trips for competitions. We relished fun family time and his little brother enjoyed the road trips. Suddenly, it’s Saturdays plus three weeknights, right in the middle of dinnertime, pushing back bedtime, trips to Colorado, California and Montreal. A year into it, he’s the No. 1 speed climber in his age group on the continent.

He gets lots of attention from friends (and parents of friends) for his skills. We get kudos for letting him pursue his passion. But suddenly – although Noah loves it and I’ve got a good carpooling situation – we’re spending thousands of dollars a year on a sport that is completely disrupting our family. Noah isn’t getting enough sleep. Three nights a week, eating dinner as a family isn’t an option. What little homework he has is rushed because he simply has no time.

Why? Because I can’t bring myself to slow it down. Climbing helps Noah’s attention span and hyperactivity. It makes him feel good about himself. He is an amazing rock climber and climbing may be an Olympic sport within the next decade. What if Michael Phelps’ mom kept him from swimming, because she wanted him home for dinner and Scrabble?

Honestly, I don’t really care how well Noah rock climbs as long as he’s happy. Still, it seems I’m becoming fodder for Hyman’s blog (www.youthsportsparents.blogspot.com).

“The push to specialize begins with the notion that youth sports is leading to something bigger – to a rec league all-star squad, to an elite travel team, to a starring role in high school to a college scholarship, to the New York Yankees or Tiger Woods winning the Masters,” Hyman says. “It can become all about climbing the ladder, though it's not clear what we're climbing to. Some kids make it to the top – a tiny fraction. More often kids burn out or get hurt.”

A Boulder, Colo., firm, Atlas Sports Genetics, is even offering up a DNA test that can possibly predict a child’s future athletic prowess. And, parents are lining up to fork over $149 for a glimmer of hope.

OK, I’m starting to realize that I’m not as close to the fringe as my son’s schedule might suggest. Still, if a parent is feeling the pressure, a child is feeling the pressure.

When did it start and how will it end?

Thompson feels the change in how parents approach childhood started in the ‘70s. From that time, it’s been a slippery, predictable slope to pressured childhoods, especially in the suburbs.

“As we entered the most intensely capitalistic and competitive time in American life, ambitious parents began to feel that only the top colleges could guarantee a good economic life for their children,” he says. “They had the money to pay for such colleges, so they drove their children toward those goals. Affluent public schools responded by adding homework and offerings that filled up children’s time. During our crime wave from 1975 to 1995, families with two working parents didn’t trust their neighborhoods, so they began to rely on organized town sports rather than neighborhood play. We began to live farther and farther away from our jobs, so our commutes were longer.

“All of this meant that we were less happy – the paradox of affluence – and more frantic to find the right solutions for our children.”

One simple cause of today’s overload on kids is that parents simply have forgotten what it’s like to be in school for six or seven hours a day, Thompson says. It’s not unlike being at work. When you leave for the day, do you want to head home for a glass of wine and a comfortable couch (kid’s translation: cookies and milk and a bike ride around the neighborhood) or a continuing education class (kid’s translation: piano lessons)?

Abel spends much of his time managing parents’ expectations. For example, if your elementary-age child isn’t that into her homework, she’s pretty normal.

“Most children 12 and under don’t have a very sound work ethic about school,” he assures. “They do school because they kind of have to do school. They are much more focused on their play and leisure activities.”

Ann Dunnewold, a Dallas psychologist and author of Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box, says the pressure doesn’t start with the child or the parent. It starts with society: “It really goes back to our more, better, all, got-to-have-it kind of philosophy. Everybody feels like they’re going to lose out,” she asserts.

Dunnewold’s daughter is now 23. This shift in childhood occurred at some point as she was raising her little girl, the mom recalls.

“There are many causes. One is shrinking resources, the perception that there is less and we have to work harder to get it. There are fewer lots to build houses on, fewer spots in Ivy League schools and more and more people working harder to even maintain,” she declares. “And, part of it is just how we think as Americans. Nobody ever wants to come to this country to do worse.”

But shouldn’t we encourage our kids to follow their passions? Expose them to things we weren’t exposed to? Send them to the best schools? Connect their neurotransmitters through classical music? Teach them a foreign language as toddlers when language comes easy? Expand their horizons and all that?

Maybe. Or maybe we should just follow their lead – which will probably involve more sand than Spanish.

Another big piece of the pressure puzzle is the wave of 1970s child development research (gone awry) that was designed to teach parents and educators how to foster a child’s self-esteem and cognitive ability. The research, though, targeted children who were having problems in an attempt to bring them up to speed. Parents and educators, however, applied it to all children. Out of this came Baby Mozart and a trophy for every player.

“Everybody took it and ran with it,” Dunnewold says. “They started creating super kids. My profession is kind of at fault for what the media did with what my profession started. The point of the research was not to create 4-year-old super kids.”

But it did. And, as timing would have it, supermoms were hitting their stride.

The women’s movement greatly expanded a woman’s world. Instead of deciding whether to be a nurse or a teacher, women were getting doctorate degrees, law degrees, running corporations.

“If you can have it all, it means you really have to compete if you see you don’t have it all,” Dunnewold explains. “Women entering the workforce developed skills that made things happen. When you decide to stay home with children, what are you going to do with those skills? You transfer them into the perfect birthday party because you’re an events coordinator. You tutor them because you have a law degree. My mom’s generation worked three months and they were pregnant. They didn’t have that same kind of pressure to create the product of the child.”

This burden is why, at one extreme, parents obsessively remind children about homework deadlines, take them to sports practices multiple times a week, and kill themselves juggling a math competition, guitar recital and baseball game on a Saturday morning. At the other end of the spectrum, it has parents doing their children’s science project, writing their research papers and prepping their kids to become professional baseball players in the sixth grade.

“It leaves a parent with a sort of constant nagging anxiety about being good enough and not running their kid,” Dunnewold informs. “Our push from psychology was to build self-esteem. But when parents hover and do more for the kids – helping with the homework, helping with the project – it sends the message to kids that what you do on your own isn’t good enough. The message is counter to what you wanted to produce, which is leaving a lot of kids who are not able to feel good about doing things on their own, not able to schedule themselves, entertain themselves.”

Well, I’m not doing any of that. I barely know what grade my kids are in, as a friend of mine once joked, and we generally limit our schedule to music and one sport. Still, the rock climbing haunts me.

Recently, after a Saturday morning science competition, Noah didn’t want to go to climbing practice. He just wanted to go home. I, of course, let him. But, I worried about the money we were wasting and the upcoming competition in Canada. While other parents seem happy to devote their lives to the sport, I’m wondering if Noah’s rock climbing future will be irreparably damaged if he only misses two family dinners a week (and, yes, I realize how ridiculous that is).

Dunnewold once heard a basketball coach put it into the perspective I might be searching for: “He said, ‘I’ve coached 600 kids over the years I’ve been doing this, and not one of them has been a pro player yet.’”

She adds, “That’s the lesson that parents have to be able to put pretty front and center for kids. This might be something that’s a lifelong enjoyment for you, but what are the odds that it’s really going to be your life.”

Point taken.