The Myth of the Overscheduled Child

My kids are sometimes overscheduled, but not for the reason you think. (Oh, and they’re happy too.)

I recently marked my calendar with all of the rehearsal and performance dates for my daughters’ participation in our church choir. As I inked in their music theory sessions (once a week for each daughter, at different times), their rehearsal times (once a week for one daughter, twice a week for the other), and services (every Sunday morning plus some Sunday evenings), I became weary upon realizing that church choir is just the tip of the iceberg.

When the school year starts next week, the calendar will fill up with piano lessons and 4H work days, gymnastics and Girl Scouts. Several afternoons a week, I will get in my car around 3 p.m. and spend the next three hours ferrying different children to different places. We will arrive home to a dark kitchen, where I will quickly throw together a meal while begging the kids not to fill up on snacks, so we can eat and move on to an equally hectic evening dominated by homework, piano practice, showers, and reading— and still get everyone in bed by a decent time. Some nights, some subset of the family heads back out after supper for a Girl Scout meeting or school concert.

From this description, we come across as the stereotypical family dominated by the needs of dangerously overscheduled children. This is the story the media tells: In homes like ours, kids are pressured (by parents obsessed with their kids’ ultimate success; by a culture obsessed with standardized tests, wealth, and superstar athletes; by the kids’ own desire to get into top-notch colleges) to take on too much. This pressure results in families in which everyone is stressed out by the activity treadmill that children climb on in kindergarten (or younger). Furthermore, children have no time to do what kids did in the good old days—wander the neighborhood, make up their own games, and interact with peers without adult interference.

That story? It’s a lie. A myth—at least for me and the vast majority of my friends who are parents. While our family and most families we know are often uncomfortably busy, our children’s schedules still allow for good old-fashioned, minimally supervised fun. But more important, the reasons for our full schedules have nothing to do with our (or our kids’) obsession with Ivy League schools, high-paying careers, or other marks of success. There are two primary reasons for our overscheduled family life, neither of them stemming from parental anxiety over our children’s success.

First, our children’s schedules are full because we want our children to be healthy and happy (not highly educated or wealthy or successful). We sign our kids up for after-school activities for one reason, and one reason only: Because they ask us to. Ben and Meg’s gymnastics classes, Meg and Leah’s piano lessons and church choir, Meg’s spring softball, Leah’s 4H Club and horseback riding lessons—every single one of these activities feeds my kids’ natural interests and talents. Every activity is something they want to do. And they understand that if they are no longer enjoying the activity, or it interferes too much with their schoolwork or rest, they can quit.

We want our kids to do things they enjoy, and refine natural talents and interests. We can see how each child’s chosen activities contribute to his or her health and happiness, by encouraging physical activity or a love of music, for example, and teaching valuable life lessons—winning and losing gracefully, becoming better through practice, aspiring to match or surpass a role model’s achievements, persevering through difficulty, and learning the hard way that life isn’t always fair.

Second, our children’s schedules are full because of simple math. Each of our children is usually signed up for one to three activities at a time. We have at times asked them to choose one activity out of several. We have at times steered them away from an activity that placed too onerous a financial or time burden on our family, or seemed unsuitable for some other reason.

But even with limits, multiply one or two or three activities by two or three or more kids, and bam, you’ve got a very full family schedule.

Then there’s the limited daily time we have with our children, in which we aspire to do all those things that we know (and experts tell us) are important. Michelle Obama, letters from school, and even kids’ TV commercials tell us that children need at least an hour of physical activity per day—in the fresh air if possible. Researchers extol the benefits of families sitting down to eat dinner together, as well as the nutritional benefits of home-cooked meals over fast food. School officials and child psychologists beg parents to make sure our kids get sufficient sleep. And then there’s homework, which my children all started getting in kindergarten.

My kids get off their school bus at 4 p.m. For everyone’s well-being and sanity, we start moving the kids toward bed by 8 p.m., allowing them time to read in bed before the lights go out (daily reading being both a school requirement and a family habit). That gives us four hours in which to:

-                Play actively for at least 30 to 60 minutes (my younger kids get 30 minutes a day of recess at school).

-                Prepare, eat, and clean up after a family dinner.

-                Practice instruments.

-                Do homework.

-                Participate in any activity scheduled for that day, such as a piano lesson, choir rehearsal, or softball game. Even if only one child has an activity, often everyone goes along for the ride.

-                Go to orthodontist, doctor, dentist, haircut, and other necessary appointments.

Some days the math just doesn’t work, and it is not possible to fit everything in. On those days, my kids (and I) are certainly overscheduled. And sometimes cranky about it. But I have yet to figure out how to make four hours of after-school time last for more than four hours.

Do you know which activity causes the most stress in our family? It’s not choir or gymnastics. It’s homework. In the early grades, homework assignments are fairly simple, but usually require some parental help. Much homework in the younger grades is even overtly billed as enhancing the “home-school connection.” In other words, there is an expectation that parents will do homework with their children. We can’t send the kids off to do their homework while we clean up the dishes.

A more reasonable elementary-grade homework policy (for example, weekly practice of spelling words and math facts, plus an occasional longer-term project, rather than reams of worksheets and parent-led learning games) would do loads more to ease our family’s schedule than having our kids opt out of activities they love. (My middle schoolers’ homework, by the way, rarely causes stress. She has plenty, and now and then she stays up later than she should finishing because our afternoon was full of activities. But this is uncommon and is also partly due to her own…um…growing ability to manage her time well. And we are grateful that her homework is truly her homework, and not ours.)

But even with the stress of doing questionably useful homework along with their other activities, if you asked my overscheduled kids if they are happy or stressed out, most of the time they would say they are happy. And on weekends and some less-hectic weekdays, they spend hours going from yard to yard and house to house with neighborhood friends, riding bikes and scooters to the outer limits of their allowable territory, making up games with dress-up clothes and dolls, creating art just for fun, and reading for pleasure. Their full schedules are not robbing them of their childhoods.

Are there parents who fill their children’s schedules to bursting because they dream of Ivy League diplomas and lucrative careers for their offspring? Are there parents who force their children into activities that the children have no interest in, because the parents see those activities as necessary for raising a successful child? I’m sure there are. Unfortunately, wisdom and having your priorities in order are not prerequisites for procreating. But I honestly don’t know any parents like that, even in the relatively wealthy, well-educated, high-pressure suburb in which we live.

So the next time you see a harried mother rushing kids from one activity to another, confessing that everyone ate fast-food burgers in the car because it was the only way she could figure out how to do dinner, or pulling her minivan into the driveway at 7 p.m. to disgorge a pack of hungry, tired children, don’t assume her family has fallen prey to our culture’s sinister emphasis on overscheduling children to prime them for adult success.

Rather, assume that she knows her children, and is helping them grow in mind, body, and spirit by supporting them in activities that they enjoy. Assume that she is trying her best to solve the impossible math problem that our culture, with its many voices telling parents what makes for healthy, happy children, gives her to solve every day after school.

 

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Jen Schaefer

    YES! I have an only child who craves interaction with others, new experiences, and challenges both musical and physical. She comes to it naturally- I am the same way. I am often involved in several social groups, training for an athletic event or two, and am in full time graduate school as well as working full time. When I have time for quiet, I enjoy it. I can fully relax. But when I am happiest is when I am doing something new and challenging myself.
    Our child is not burdened by her schedule. She makes it. And should she decide that scaling back is necessary, she will do so. She cut down on activities in the past because she was no longer getting enough out of them to spend time invested. That’s ok. We certainly didn’t give her a hard time on dropping a few things and she picked up others.
    As long as I can provide the opportunities for our child to explore her passions, I will do so. Happily and exhausted, I will do it.

  • Julia

    Oh Ellen — again you have hit me right where I live. I have spent the last couple of days angsting about how much is “too much” for Liam, both in time, logistics and money. He has such an appetite for learning new things; I want to feed that amply while not making myself crazy (or broke) or him overscheduled and exhausted. And yet I know that he is happier when scheduled and structured. Big time. Watched him fall in LOVE in the trial Tae Kwan Do class yesterday.
    But just this morning I felt myself fretting about homework that may be coming our way in first grade — when exactly as working mom/chauffeur/chef (more like mess cook)/babycare provider am I supposed to sit down for that quality schoolwork time? Yikes. Thanks for giving voice to such pertinent week-before-school questions. Somedays I feel like you are my priest, not vice versa.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Ah…you are too kind.
      The whole issue of how working parents handle scheduling and homework is one I didn’t even broach, but is I think worth a whole blog post on its own. And one thought I had is that while I don’t know anyone who signs their kids up for activities out of anxiety and desire for their child’s success, I do know people who sign their kids up for activities because they need some form of supervised child care while they work. So sometimes activities aren’t entirely a free choice, but rather a necessity.
      I have a friend whose daughter absolutely fell in love with Tae Kwan Do and has made a big difference in her daughter’s life and happiness. Hope it’s true for Liam too!

  • http://www.housewifetheologian.com/lifting-heads/ Tim

    “Some days the math just doesn’t work.” Ain’t that the truth, Ellen. Witho our kids we made a conscious decision not to add things at the start of the school year because the time filled up (quite nicely thank you!) all on its own.

    Tim

  • Wren

    While you obviously do a wonderful job balancing your kids schedules and staying involved in their lives please don’t think that just because it works for you and your kids that it works for all of them. From being around kids at a upper class private school i can tell you that many, many of those parents over schedule their kids just they don’t have to deal with them. I’ve seen kids that are exhausted from being run around from this to that. I’ve seen kids that don’t want to leave the school because it’s more of a home to them than that strange house where they sleep. What is probably the most disturbing aspect is when these kids have some actual free time they don’t have the slightest idea of what to do with themselves. I’m happy this works out for you and your kids, but for many it doesn’t.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Thanks so much for your perspective! I have no doubt there are many families, particularly well-educated, upper-class families like the ones at the school you mention, where kids are asked to do too much and don’t have enough free time to explore other pursuits. But here’s why I wrote this: I think the media tends to take extreme and non-representational situations, like the ones you describe that go on at your school, and then implies that the dynamics of those situations apply everywhere. So there’s this cultural notion that, because a minority of parents have their priorities out of whack, ANY family in which kids are signed up for several activities and in which there are stressful days when parents struggle to fit it all in has overscheduled our kids for our own questionable motives, because of our own anxiety over their futures. I think MOST families are, like ours, occasionally stressed by our schedules not because we are pressuring our kids to succeed in a particular way, but because we’re just trying to help our kids do what they love. And when you have a few kids, that equation of, say, 3 kids times 3 activities each = 9 activities—that equation becomes a killer on some days. Add homework (which I see as overdone and unnecessary in the younger grades, when homework is by necessity a family activity, and not something that kids do on their ownto get their school work done) and it’s really tough NOT to be overscheduled, no matter how hard you try.

      I live in a pretty wealthy suburb, where some kids go to private schools and the others go to public schools that are ranked in the top 15 nationwide. And I just don’t see the dynamic that you mention here being the NORM. I see it as the exception. So that’s why I wrote this. But I still feel for those kids in homes like you describe, especially when you describe their not wanting to go home. That breaks my heart. Thanks again for sharing this!

  • http://amysimpsononline.com Amy Simpson

    Thank you! The math, indeed, does not work. We take pains to limit our kids’ commitments for the sake of the whole family–and still, with two kids we sometimes feel we can barely keep up. The things that put us over the edge are homework and other (usually school-related) obligations.


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