The overscheduled child?

photo-438I 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?

18 thoughts on “The overscheduled child?

  1. “I’ve also realized that what makes children’s activities feel draining and maddening is when the kids don’t want to do them.” YES!! Exactly. My kids are hardly in anything. We tried soccer with my now 6-year-old when he was 4, and he hated it. We made the decision then that we would only try activities that he really was interested in and wanted to do, and not push him to sign up for teams and programs just because our newsfeed is filled with other families doing them. My daughter is in one dance class that she LOVES, and my son wants to sign up for our local 4-H Club and take a gymnastics class – that’s fine by me. I watched a 3/4-year-old T-ball game for 10 minutes once, and it looked like the most miserable way to spend a Saturday morning. The kids were confused, uninterested and not at all ready to play this kind of game. I have friends who tell me they bribe their child to just kick the ball once in their soccer games. WHY do we do this to ourselves?!

  2. Kids will let you know when they feel over-scheduled, or over-committed. In our family it’s not a child’s regular schedule that is the problem, it’s the “special” days, like the team that made it into playoffs with a newly-scheduled game on the same day as a recital or audition. Or the multiples of kids, locations, and times. It’s compounded when they are too old for nannies but not old enough to drive (or there aren’t cars enough) and it’s a unique day so you don’t have a carpool or driver in place.

    And it never ends. In a few weeks we have a DS#2 dress rehearsal on a Friday, DS#1 college graduation 150 miles away on Saturday (which will include packing up the car one last time for the move home) and the big performance with DS#2 back home again on Sunday. It’s actually not bad in the doing, but figuring out the logistics and options in advance keeps the mind churning. Fortunately we have no black belt test or ACT or weddings scheduled for that weekend.

    1. @Barb – true, the ages of 12-16 might be complicated by that reality: too old for regular sitters, too young to drive. If I’m in the right frame of mind, the moving parts can be viewed as a challenge. How can we get 3 kids to 3 different places with 2 drivers? Let’s find out!

      1. Based on my experience growing up the 12+ group is easy, you simply explain to your kids that when they come to you saying the want to do X it also needs to include a plan for how they will safely get there & back. Make it their responsibility to do the leg work in planning. This meant I would choose the dance class near my mum’s work that finished when she was finishing work & my transit pass got a good workout but neither of those are bad things.

  3. This is an interesting perspective.

    I am just approaching the age of “activities” as my oldest just started kinder. Though some friends have had their kids in dance and soccer for several years, this is the first year we’ve scheduled my son for an outside-of-school activity. We chose to sign him up for soccer this fall after he repeatedly asked to be allowed to try it. Many of his friends are on his “team”, the coach organizes fun games throughout practice and the park is a short bike ride from our house. All in all, it seems like a good situation — and most days, my son seems to have lots of fun. The trouble is, he HATES going and we fight almost every practice day about whether he has to. My rule has become, “you have to go to the park, but when you get there, you can decide whether you want to join the soccer practice.” Lately, he often chooses not to join practice once we get there.
    So, here’s my question, where do you draw the line between encouraging a kid to stick with something that will eventually build skills, and allowing them to give up on something they don’t “feel” like doing. I’m sure this won’t be the last time he wants to do something until the actual time when he’s supposed to show up (heck, as an adult, I still feel this way about most of my commitments — in the moment, I’d rather stay home, but afterwards, I’m glad I went.)
    The “let your child be unscheduled” argument seems a little bit too easy, and yet, forcing my five year old to go to an activity seems silly too. Any thoughts?

    1. @TKL – good question. I think your current rule is a good one for now. You can also remind him (as I’m sure you are) that you’re noting that he’s not playing, and won’t sign him up again if he has trouble keeping his commitments.

      That said, in general, I think most people have something in life they’ll really enjoy, and part of trying different things as a kid is figuring out what that thing will be. It seemed like soccer would be a good fit for all the reasons you list, and he probably thought it would be too, but now he doesn’t think so. You can try to figure out why, and you can also just try something else he thinks he’d like. 5 is still pretty young, and I bet he’ll figure out something he wants to do at some point.

    2. I wonder about how to approach this issue, as well because of several childhood experiences in which I wish my parents had done the opposite of what they did (either pushed me to continue in something I hated and was terrible at it or let me quit something I enjoyed and was good at in a huff). I think having ongoing conversations with the child and getting at the bottom of why they want to quit is important. But at age 5, meh, I have no desire to argue with a kid about something like that.

  4. This is something I think about a lot, because I am super sensitive to *feeling* overscheduled. You could crunch the data and show me that I’m not, really, but it’s just the *feeling*. So maybe I’m just especially sensitive to STUFF on my schedule at all. When my kids were younger, we had a 1 activity per kid per week rule (other than preschool), more for the two introvert homebody parents than for the kids 🙂

    Now we are more flexible because the older one wants to try more things and if she’s interested, I want to encourage that. We “require” both of them to take weekly swim lessons until they can swim well, so I suspect that’ll be on the calendar for a while.

    In addition, the 6yo takes piano lessons and also had a weekly soccer class that just ended a few weeks ago. The 3yo has a dance class that she absolutely loves so I am hard pressed to tell her she can’t do that 🙂

    Along with 5 days a week of school 9-3 and no additional childcare, it seems like a lot of stuff. But none of it was overlapping, and I kept Sundays completely open, and that really helped me manage the feeling of being “overscheduled”. We also choose activities within a short drive and I try to be mindful about taking a book or something productive to occupy me while I wait. (Rather than endlessly scrolling on my phone.)

    1. @ARC – I think having something to do is key. When I’m on swim duty, I’ve brought my laptop and it’s been shockingly productive. Much like working in a (warm) coffee shop.

      1. Yep! A one hour dance class is a TON of time and they have free Wi-Fi as well. Even in T’s 30 min piano lesson it’s enough time for me to fill out my paper planner for the coming week.

  5. My experience has been that as they age, through middle school and high school, the demands of homework can get really tough.
    Doing travel sports and/or 4x week dance can lead to really stressed out kids. (Don’t get me started on the honors and AP course loads in high school). It takes a certain kind of kid to juggle that. Knowing the limits of each individual child really helps make the decision to dial down or amp up easier.

  6. I agree with Marg that middle school and beyond are game changers due to increased homework. Also, at least IME, practices, etc., tend to be scheduled later so that the younger kids get the afternoon. I’m thrilled that my 11yo has her green belt in karate; not so thrilled that her classes now end at 8:30 p.m. when she has to be up at 6 a.m.

    Also, and again this might be just IME, but most of our carpools disappeared after 5th grade or so. Kids become more specialized in one or two intensive activities; I’m not necessarily friends with the parents of my kids’ friends anymore; many families are dealing with multiple kids and activities by that age; more instances of two parents back at work full time; and the like are just some of the reasons I have run up against.

  7. I love the concept of the 168 hours and see the value of planning that way. All the articles have trade offs though. I would love to see articles about people that have to be in the office from 9 to 6. No option of flex time, working from home,etc Having flexibility is a huge benefit that not everyone has available to them.

  8. I took the executive decision that no term time sports activities outside of school but instead intense sports camps in the long summer holidays with friends. AKA as holiday childcare without the whinge. During the term, it is homework and unscripted park exercise and running. Plus weekday playdates with friends whose parents are very happy to have extra evening childcare. Then they have them at weekends in exchange. For the moment it works…

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