When was the last time your children came home from school and just played freely in the backyard? I’m guessing that sounds like a foreign concept. You’re probably asking, “What about taking them to dance class, art school, swim lessons, soccer practice, religious school and that tutoring session just last week alone?”
The Over-Scheduled Childhood Culture
Millions of children in the United States feel overwhelmed and pressured because of their over-scheduled lives. In a Psychology Today article, Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of “The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap,” explains how enrolling children in too many activities is a huge problem. Parents feel like they aren’t doing a good job if they don’t sign their children up for a variety of activities exposing them to sports, culture, religion, and everything else under the sun starting at a young age. But then the children are under so much pressure to compete with their peers and achieve “success.”
I learned my lesson the hard way – but luckily early enough before a major problem developed. When my son was in first grade, I signed him up for activities every day after school. I specifically remember that he had an activity on Monday and how much stress that caused him because he received his packet of homework for the entire week that day. There were many tears during that time because he wasn’t able to start his homework until close to dinner; he worried that he wouldn’t have enough time to complete his work. We decided then that it was a good idea to keep Monday clear to ease into the school week and to minimize his activities overall.
What Do We Sacrifice When We Overschedule Our Children?
Yes, we want our kids to socialize and learn new skills. However, when we over-book them, they suffer. Here are just three aspects of our children’s lives that get pushed aside when we overschedule their days.
Stress and anxiety play a big role in our children’s lives today. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), it’s estimated that 1 in 8 children suffers from an anxiety disorder. More worrisome, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 25 percent of teens ages 13-18 will experience some form of anxiety.
Much of this stress is because children are not getting enough downtime. They’re being carted around from one activity to another, unable to calm their mind and simply play. Peter Gray, author of the book “Free to Learn,” ties this lack of free play to the increase in children suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders.
Being creative involves having the time to explore and grow. When we’re creative, we become so absorbed in our work that we reach a meditative state of flow. How will our children have the chance to be creative if they are constantly rushing between structured activities?
Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D., a developmental and clinical psychologist, believes that “ … children in America are so overscheduled that they have almost no ‘nothing time.’ They have no time to call on their own resources and be creative. Creativity is making something out of nothing, and it takes time for that to happen. In our efforts to produce Renaissance children who are competitive in all areas, we squelch creativity.”
Children need time in their day to simply be themselves. This allows them to get in touch with their emotions and to ultimately figure out who they are and what they want to become. They need calm, quiet moments for mindfulness and introspection. They also need time to explore topics in depth without time constraints, curriculum and scores. When children are involved in too many different activities, they sacrifice breadth for depth and miss out on opportunities for authentic self-discovery.
How To Navigate Our Children’s Schedules
In the end, it’s all about balance. As parents, we need to learn what our children can handle and what they want – not what we think is best for their college applications. This does not mean you need to take your children out of all their activities. Try limiting the amount of time spent in extracurricular activities and choosing them wisely. For example, we decided that baseball was not going to work for my son because it required a commitment of three days per week. We also just pulled my daughter out of a wonderful dance studio to attend dance at her school because it alleviates unnecessary travel time.
The bottom line: keep tabs on what makes your children happy and be sure they’re getting plenty of unscheduled downtime.
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