I wrote much of this essay in the space of time before I brought my 8-year-old to swim practice. He swims on a competitive team and has practice three times per week. His team practices year-round, and he’s quite happy with it. We never have to cajole him to go. We (meaning me, my husband, and our nanny) just have to drive him.
We drive to a fair number of things these days. The 6-year-old was in swimming this fall (more on that below). The 6-year-old and the 4-year-old both played soccer twice a week for the fall season. The 6-year-old was in Lego Club, and the 4-year-old was in dance. The 6-year-old and 8-year-old are taking piano. Fortunately that does not involve driving; the teacher comes to us. (Highly recommended if that’s an option in your neighborhood).
If you add in homework, we might be an exhibit for the alleged modern woe of overscheduling. If I wanted to find evidence that this was the story of my life, I suppose I could. We had some crowded weekends this fall. The thing is, it wasn’t every weekend. We were home and done with stuff by 6:30 almost every week day. Since my kids are all night owls, this left a reasonable quantity of open space for playing too. And now, since many of the fall activities are done, we’re in a lull before winter stuff. Our time feels pretty open.
I’ve been thinking about this as I revisited a WSJ piece I wrote in 2009 called “The Myth of the Overscheduled Child.” In it, I noted that while the popular perception is that kids are increasingly overscheduled, overloaded with homework and the like, this is not a new complaint. People wrote of modern children being overscheduled in the 1930s (just like, incidentally, I have Fortune magazines from the 1950s in which executives complain of how overworked they are, with work following them home — this did not arise with smart phones!)
In judging whether the perception is accurate, we can look at time diary data about how children spend their time. The average teen, according to figures I used in my story, was in school 30 hours a week, and spent 4.9 hours on homework, 3.9 hours on sports, and 1.2 hours on “organizations” (like youth groups). If you add these up, tack on 65 hours for sleep (the average) and subtract from 168 hours, you get a fair amount of open space. No wonder the average teen was able to watch 15-24 hours of TV per week!
Averages, of course, can mask many things. I cited another study finding that some 40 percent of children were in no activities at all, a statistic that by itself should add some nuance to the “are children overscheduled?” conversation. About 6 percent of children were in more than 20 hours of activities a week, which certainly sounds like a lot to me. That said, the researcher who ran those numbers found that there weren’t any particularly negative effects for these children from their schedules. If you’re in school 30 hours, doing 20 hours of activities, and doing 10 hours of homework (double the average) that gets you 60 hours a week. Sleep 9 hours a night (63 per week) and you’re left with 45 hours per week for other things. That’s not a copious quantity, but it’s not nothing, either, and for the most part these children weren’t suffering.
This is not to say that no one is overscheduled. This is also not to say that there aren’t busy days or weekends, though perhaps chauffeuring parents, like people in general, have a tendency to talk about and remember our worst days and weekends as typical. As I am now 6 years and several children on in my parenting adventure from when I wrote that essay, I can add a bit more perspective.
There are ways to make activities easier and harder on yourself. We’ve generally chosen stuff that is close by. We changed our childcare hours to 4 days/week but longer hours on those days. This sometimes makes Fridays tough for me if there are calls I can’t move. However it meant that our nanny and I could generally trade off on some of the activity runs, so we didn’t always have to drag other kids along. I’ve also realized that what makes children’s activities feel draining and maddening is when the kids don’t want to do them. My 6-year-old tried out for and got onto a swim pre-team with a different program (not the one the 8-year-old is in). For whatever reason (I suspect a slightly colder pool was part of it) he didn’t like it. I’d be arguing with him to go. I have no desire to argue with a 6-year-old about going to an activity. So eventually I let it slide. We’ll try again with another program in the spring.
What’s your philosophy on children’s activities?