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Are My Children Over-scheduled?

Ask the Experts: Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW 

Q: I feel like there is a lot of pressure to have my kids in multiple activities.  While I would like my kids to be involved in what interests them, I do worry about over-scheduling.  As parents, how can we help our kids strike the right balance? 

As our culture becomes more preoccupied with success, hyper achievement is becoming a norm in family values.

There is pressure for the “good” parent to provide their children with a wide range of competitive opportunities and to become intensely involved in managing a demanding schedule.  The idea is that by exposing children to these early competitive experiences, you are preparing them for academic, athletic and extracurricular successes.  These demands on kids, which often begin at an early age, are usually motivated by the desire to give children a competitive edge or build self esteem.

In an effort by well-intended parents to help children excel, kids are racing to meet the multiple demands of traveling sports teams, music lessons, academic tutoring, and school enrichment programs. The thinking seems to be that self-esteem is driven by a long list of accomplishments and children’s ability to compete.  Given our current culture it is understandable that parents feel this way, but it is also misguided.

These frantic schedules come at a cost.  Perhaps one of the greatest  is the disintegration of family time.

Nothing shapes a child’s life more than the family experience.  Parents teach their children what to love and value, expectations regarding their behavior, and how they are perceived and experienced by others.  Families need to protect themselves from excessive interruptions and demands in order to teach these lessons.  If the family connection is undermined by over scheduling, it is the cultural influence, rather than the family influence, that begins to define our children.

In an increasingly complex world, most kids need more time with an engaged adult than an additional activity to attend.  The cultural message is “the more activities, the better.”  Yet, children who are shuttled from one activity to the next often have only a superficial immersion in an activity.  Multiple activities can lead to boredom and lack of passion.

Passion is critical to the competence building that parents seek for several reasons:

  • it is internally motivated, which gives kids greater persistence
  • it encourages a love of learning
  • it increases frustration tolerance through the struggle to attain mastery, and
  • praise or success is less of a motivator than simply doing the activity.

Crowding out passion by trying to provide unlimited opportunities denies children the chance to develop a stronger sense of identity and self-assurance or a deeper interest in what matters to them.

The current thinking is more is better and the busiest families have been held up as the model for success in our achievement oriented culture. Parents want what is best for their children and are trying to promote healthy development and a sense of accomplishment by providing so many opportunities for success.  But the demands on kids, and their schedules, have become excessive.

Life for most families has become so busy that many parents have not stopped to reflect on whether this “busyness” makes any sense or is meeting the needs they hoped.  Kids are going from one activity to another with little consideration given to the value of family time or solitude.  Studies indicate that families are spending less time together, while kids are reporting that they would like to have more time with their parents.

It is important to prepare our children for success in this competitive climate, but it may be time to revisit how to best prepare them.  Though simplistic, protecting family time is critical to that end.

Children need time and space for refueling, reflection and creating.  They need attention, affection, guidance, discipline and conversation.  Children need laughter, playtime, affection and touch. And they need a responsible, caring adult to know and love them intimately and to be actively engaged in their development.

Success, self-regard, growth – all can be best developed in the context of family.  We do have the responsibility to connect our children to opportunities in the broader community, but we would be well served by looking critically at our choices and following through in a mindful, selective manner.

Signs of over scheduling

  • An increase in negative temperament characteristics,  such as whining, separation anxiety or oppositional behavior.
  • Complaints that scheduled activities are “boring” or resistance  to attending scheduled activities.
  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits, moods swings, repeated  illness or a decline in academic or extracurricular performance.
  • An increase in fighting or irritability, particularly around transitions.

Protecting Family Time

  • Limit activities of family members.  Have one day a week when  nothing is scheduled, maintain regular mealtimes, or institute family  meetings or game night.
  • Create family rituals which protect time.  Read aloud together, have  nightly bedtime conversations, make meals as a family, or attend religious services.
  • Maintain family routines.  The repetitive nature of routines provides children comfort, predictability and a sense of control.
  • Turn off the TV, the computer and cell phones.
  • Work together, rather than dividing chores, so that children can contribute to communal work and feel genuinely useful.
  • Celebrate together and develop traditions that support family relationships

Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW is a member of The Family Center's Association of Professionals. She is a Clinical Therapist who works with children, adolescents and adults. She can be reached at 313.408.2180.

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