As parents, most of us want lives for our children that are full of opportunities and wonderful experiences that we may not have had. Given that thinking, it's not a surprise that we fall into the trap of enrolling our children in music, gymnastics, dance, language, sports and college entrance examination prep classes all by the first grade. Clearly, I am exaggerating; however, there is no doubt that many of our families are on a "hyper-schedule".
My friends, who have high school and college-aged children state that they wish they had given their children more downtime. One mother of twins regretfully discussed dragging her girls into "Mommy & Me" classes at eighteen months old. Instead of focusing on play, she panicked, taking them to a speech therapist for an evaluation because she was afraid that their verbal skills weren't as fluent as their peers. They were fine.
Another mom spoke of the emotional conflicts, financial costs and time pressures of scheduling multiple activities for her young son and daughter. She remembered carpool nightmares because of conflicting schedules and dealing with children too tired to complete their homework because of absolute exhaustion. When they did have free time, they were unable to come up with their own games and cited boredom. Her reflections: "You know what? I should have created more downtime for them, just put them in the backyard to play and called it a day."
So, how do you know if you are enriching your child's life versus overscheduling them?
Simply put, pay attention to your child for their verbal and non-verbal responses to scheduled activities. If you notice that they are constantly complaining about the next 'event,' beginning to miss assignments, having constant complaints of being tired and sleepy, reporting that are not enjoying any aspect of their multiple activities — and they are appearing to be very stressed, upset and absolutely miserable, pull back.
As parents, we have to realize that our desires and angst over missed childhood activities may not be theirs. Being overinvolved with every detail of their school and free time may lead to overscheduling of outside time and less family time. Believe me, quality family time trumps any organized activity.
Participating in extracurricular activities like sports, academics, community and the arts can be beneficial. Children can learn to work on teams, gain time management skills, function with supportive networks and respond optimally in competitive situations.
Tips for parents
1. Learn to have high expectations with low criticism. It is important to have a bar. We want our children to aim high. In return, we need to be supportive not destructive regarding their efforts.
2. Eliminate 10 percent of your child's activities now! Overscheduled children bear the burden of stressed-out families. After five hours of extracurricular activities, the benefit for children is lessened. Add in downtime.
3. Listen to your child. When they communicate feeling tired, overwhelmed or report having fun and being satisfied, notice what's going on. Monitor their sleep and dietary patterns.
4. Avoid 'emotional isolation' by overdoing activities and underdoing family time. The most important relationship is not with your child's coach or tutor, it is with you.
5. Build character, not a resume. Expose your kids to coaches and people that teach supportive relationships, organizational skills, time management and leadership.
6. Discuss wants with your child. The process can help them think about what they like and provide an opportunity to discuss commitments, demands and expectations.