When Kids Have Too Much to Do, They May Need Time to Do Nothing
By Karyn Miller-Medzon
Nancy Dowling and Bob Bondaryk have busy kids. The older two, Elizabeth, 11, and Matt, 8, arrive at school by 7:30 a.m. for their music lessons. After school, they have religious education and orchestra practice. On weekends, they take swimming lessons at the Y and participate in seasonal sports like soccer and baseball. Elizabeth also takes horseback riding lessons, while Matt plays chess.
Starting this year, 5-year-old Samantha will join her older siblings on the fast track. She'll start to learn an instrument (she's chosen the violin) and take swimming lessons as well.
"Indeed," Dowling says, "our kids are intensely scheduled."
Dowling, like parents around the city, feels strongly about exposing her children to different types of activities, new experiences and new people. She feels comfortable knowing where her children are, what they're doing and with whom.
But child development experts have mixed feelings. While they agree there are significant benefits to involving children in activities, some worry the intensity of children's scheduling detracts from the "down time" they need to explore the world on their own terms.
At the same time, they recognize that today's society is more complex than it was 25, 35 or 50 years ago. Not only do scheduled activities provide care for children when mom and dad go off to work, but they also give parents the security of knowing their child is off the street, learning something useful and hanging out with the "right" crowd.
The dilemma - for parents and experts alike - is how to meet everyone's needs.
The "Wrong" Reasons
"It's not a bad thing to care about your children and want them to be stimulated and programmed into activities for which they have potential," says educational consultant Nanci Goldman. "It's a problem if the parents are doing it for other reasons."
Among those reasons is the desire to see their children do things parents wish they themselves could be doing, or using the activities solely as baby-sitting instruments.
In these cases, children "lose their sense of having any control over their lives," says Linda Braun, executive director of Families First and a professor at Wheelock College in Boston. "They end up feeling scheduled every minute of the day."
Internationally renowned pediatrician, author and child development expert T. Berry Brazelton agrees. "We tend to push ourselves hard, and we do the same thing to our children. We have to look at the underlying motives."
While Braun admits that some kids love that kind of scheduling, even thrive on it, she worries that it creates a need for rigid routine. "They develop a strong need to know what's going to happen next," she says.
And that's where the balancing act comes in. "The art of parenting is finding the right match between the child's inclination and the parents' needs," Braun says. "There's a difference between exposing children to new activities and forcing them to participate because that's what you need as a parent."
Finding a Balance
Nancy Dowling, for one, feels her family has achieved a balance. "There's a lot of back and forth," she says. "We feel strongly about religious education and music, and the kids feel strongly about the other activities." Since her children do not attend their neighborhood school, Dowling says, the activities have helped them make other friends.
"They are shy by nature and don't know the neighborhood kids. On days when they're home, they play around the house by themselves," says Dowling, who adds she makes sure they have enough "down time" to do exactly that.
While child-development experts worry about parents over scheduling kids, in many cases, it is the child who pushes for more.
Alexandra Horowitz, 12, is one such child. Her parents say they would be just as happy to have her at home, but Horowitz insists, "I love to be busy. I feel there's something missing if I'm not."
During the school year, her activities include tennis, swimming, dance, video class and student council. This past summer, her agenda reached a feverish pitch with daily acting classes, tennis and swimming lessons. She also had a weekly voice lesson.
Horowitz disagrees strongly with the notion that the hectic pace detracts from her creativity. "All the stuff I love to do has to do with being creative," she says. "In my spare time, I write stories and draw."
"There have been times when I've wanted to relax more," she admits, "But it's usually the opposite. I ask myself 'Why am I not busy with anything else?'"
Charlotte Yeh says her two oldest children, Julianne, 9, and Jessalyn, 7 also love their busy schedules. In fact, when she attempted to reduce Julianne's load - which at the time included Hebrew School, a children's theater production, and twice-weekly gymnastics - her daughter insisted she could "do it all."
And she did. "She learned to do her homework on the way to and from school. She got to bed on time and got up on time," recalls her mother. "It was a very valuable experience, and the choice was hers."
Jessalyn has shown the same independence, taking piano lessons on top of an intensive gymnastics program held three times a week. "We never had to tell her to practice. She just does it," her mother says.
Yeh acknowledges she and her husband, Fred Gayle, initially directed their daughters toward these activities. "As parents, we pushed it when they were little. We wanted them to get used to the idea of being involved in multiple activities. That way, they could pick and choose later."
One benefit of the hectic scheduling is that when one child has an activity planned, the other children in the family get a chance for extra one-on-one time with a parent, Yeh says. The same is true for the long hours spent commuting back and forth to activities. "It's a time for conversations. That's when you can begin to discover what's going on in a child's head."
Taking a Break
Yeh says she watches for signs that her kids are overdoing it.
"Every now and then, when an activity gets really intense and they need a break, we'll say 'You're not going to gymnastics today.' Knowing that we can make that choice helps," she says.
According to Brazelton, that type of insight is critical.
While it's important to "expose children to a complex society and give them skills they can choose from," he says, it's equally critical to recognize how much of a good thing is too much.
Kathi Heater, a mother of four, says experience has taught her when to say "No."
"I think one of the biggest mistakes our generation made was that we didn't do anything as kids," she says. "And in making up for it, we tend to say 'We didn't do this so you should.' But we learned over the years that they didn't have time to play."
Among her children's activities are gymnastics for 9-year-old Jenny and 4-year-old Cullen; horseback riding for Jenny and 7-year-old Devin; French lessons for Jenny and Devin; religious instruction and seasonal sports. Heater says she's careful to keep the scheduling reasonable. And that means keeping a few afternoons a week open for "riding their bikes in the driveway or watching television."
She says she makes sure her children follow through on the activities they choose and drop the ones they lose interest in. "Why spend the money and drive them crazy?"
Those strategies help prevent stress, burn-out and loss of imagination among highly scheduled children, particularly at the early elementary and preschool ages, says Braun.
"Parents need to make sure they have blocks of unscheduled time," she says. "They need to say 'All day Sunday we're going to hang out and be here.' And then they need to do it on the children's time." Braun cautions parents against falling into the trap of filling free moments with running to the bank, grocery shopping or dropping off the dry cleaning.
"That's being with children on the parents' time," she says. "What they really need are blocks of simple, unscheduled time, where they can lie down and suck their thumbs if they want to or just run around the yard.
Is Your Child Over-Scheduled?
Karen Miller-Medzon is a free-lance writer and a mother.