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Last year, my 8-year-old daughter and her former BFF, a girl we’ll call Lucy, drifted apart—gymnastics, piano lessons, soccer practice and twice-weekly religious classes barely left time for playdates. Sleepovers, once routine, were no-gos thanks to early morning tennis lessons and soccer games. Was Lucy sad or stressed? She seemed happy, and her mom agreed. Then again, most parents I speak with don’t feel their child is overscheduled to their detriment—all say their kids love keeping busy. And maybe it’s true. Then again, parents don’t always realize how stressed their children really are.
WebMD’s 2015 Stress in Children Consumer Survey revealed stressed out parents are great at recognizing their own frazzled nerves, but miss the same feelings in their children. So, what’s going on? “[Overscheduling is] a problem…particularly prevalent among upper middle class families in which one or both parents are professionals,” says Justin R. Misurell, PhD, clinical director of the New Jersey office of the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Health.
A full roster of lessons, classes and practices adds up, and access to flexible transportation and childcare tends to be disproportionately available to higher income families. Kids and families feeling like everything is a competition doesn’t help, either.
“Families [that] overschedule their children are simply trying to give [them] every advantage they can by providing enrichment activities and experiences designed to boost skills and abilities which will in turn, presumably, help them excel in school academically, enhance their social desirability and make them more competitive for college,” says Misurell. Throw in some working parent guilt (if you can’t be with your kids, make sure the time apart is well-spent) plus a healthy dose of peer pressure, and you get a fully-packed schedule.
What are the signs of an overscheduled kid?
“There are probably an infinite number depending on your child,” says Rutgers University’s Carrie Lobman, Ed.D., a teacher educator, trainer and educational researcher.
Kids may bite their nails and have trouble falling asleep, or become more irritable, agitated and easily annoyed. Frequent arguments, neglect of homework and responsibilities or anger and resentment are other signals of a problem. “Another sign might be when children start losing their ability to play on their own and expect to have something planned for them all the time,” says Lobman. Think about that the next time your child says he’s bored.
What are the downsides of busy schedules?
“Children who are overscheduled can certainly struggle with anxiety and stress,” says Misurell. It can also lead to a tremendous sense of competition resulting in unnecessary pressure and conflict among parents and kids. “I’ve seen children deliberately sabotage their progress in order to get back at their parents for forcing them to engage in a particular activity,” Misurell says. In turn, parents begrudge their kids for not appreciating the opportunities they’ve been given. “This resentment can have a toxic impact on families, undoing many of the positives to be gained from having a busy extracurricular schedule in the first place.”
Should I be worried that my kid has little down time?
Free play isn’t frivolous. “Free time gives children a chance to learn how to self-organize, how to follow through with things of their own planning and how to work and play together without adult interference or supervision,” says Lobman. “Kids go from school to sports or music or dance or all sorts of enrichment activities. And while it’s a critical part of healthy development, I think free play time—time to engage in pretend play and outdoor running around and all sorts of other things—is equally valuable.”
How do parents fare in all this?
Poorly. “Logistical coordination can be a nightmare as parents sometimes juggle multiple children and multiple activities.
This is even more stressful for single-parent households and families with two working parents,” says Misurell. “Additionally, when parents and children are overscheduled, they often neglect other important activities that are critical to mental health and well-being such as sleep, exercise and recreation.” What can we do to fix this?
Was the activity your idea or your child’s? “If you feel like you’re constantly cajoling and pushing your child to go to soccer practice or dance or music class, then you may want to reconsider the activity,” says Misurell. If that resistance is caused by a desire to play Xbox, however, a little push is fine as long as your child is genuinely interested.
Emphasize process over outcome.
Focus on things like effort and enjoyment instead of winning and leveling up. “As far as life skills go, it’s more important for your children to be reinforced and praised for working hard, being consistent and persevering in the face of adversity than for your child to win the softball game or tennis match,” says Misurell. Mind your priorities. Ignoring vital “family time,” such as unstructured leisure time together or sitting down for a meal, is counterproductive. “Having time to see and talk to each other develops children’s language and social skills, and also their connection and appreciation of others,” says Lobman.
Keep homework in check.
Help your child develop effective strategies for completing homework (such as reading while waiting to be picked up). If it’s simply too much, think about which activities are preventing homework from getting done and consider cutting back. Make sure your child helps decide what can go. Dropping her favorite art class so she still has time to take violin lessons (which she hates) won’t make anyone happy.
There must be an upside to a full after-school itinerary, right?
Extracurricular activities are good for child development, says Misurell. For starters, they provide well-rounded experiences outside the classroom, enhance children’s social and emotional skills and connect kids with similar interests to foster new friendships. All of this gives kids a sense of purpose and promotes a feeling of belonging, which protects against depression and anxiety. Best of all, a full schedule squeezes out screen time. And the only thing worse than an overscheduled child is an underscheduled child with an iPad.
Jennifer Kantor is a parenting and lifestyle writer. She lives in Maplewood with her husband and two kids.