"I know it doesn't feel right but everyone else is doing it." These were the words I said far too often a few years ago when I was a new parent. It seemed to be the only response I could muster up when a well-meaning grandparent or friend (with no kids) commented on how busy we were as a family because of all my kids' activities.
I did not say these words proudly. I said them with a pang of guilt for the hectic life I had created for my family. A life with "activities" that I had nothing to do with as a child myself. As the fifth child of immigrant parents, I was never in a single structured activity -- ever. My parents didn't have the time, money, or will to enroll me in anything at all and I found myself saying what many of today's parents are fond of saying when they see how different childhood has become; "I turned out alright." However, my pang of guilt would shift to fear and anxiety when someone would respond with a "yeah but the world is more competitive now." Thankfully, what didn't shift, what made me absolutely miserable inside, was a nagging feeling that I was harming my children more than helping them.
Even though my parental intuition was telling me to just let my kids play more, the fear of my kids "falling behind" made me enroll them in all sorts of structured activities. Thankfully, it was my knowledge as a researcher of self-motivation, my experience as a medical doctor who has worked with stressed, anxious, and depressed overscheduled children for over 12 years, and a teacher of millennial university students who often lack empathy, social skills, creativity, and critical thinking that finally made me act.
Sam was a first year University student when he was referred to me. He was taking English and music and had slashed up his arms with the bow of his violin. He told me it was not a suicide attempt but rather a protest against his childhood. Sam told me that as a child, he was a star student excelling in academics and music as he spent a lot of time in those activities. However, after Sam reached a certain level of technical ability, he started to fall behind. Around grade 11, the emphasis became more on reading comprehension, creative writing, music composition, and group projects and thus, Sam barely made it into University. Once in University, things became much worse and Sam admitted to me that he slashed his arms after he was caught cheating on an English essay that he just couldn't "figure out on his own".
Sam's story is not unique. I have seen it countless times. A highly instructed child performing well with linear, technical tasks that begins to unravel when tasks become more complex, creative, or group oriented. A 2014 study that was published in the Journal Frontiers of Psychology, showed the relationship between the time children spend in less-structured and structured activities and the development of vital skills that are becoming ever more important in our 21st century world. Scientists call these skills self-directed executive functioning and as the study lead author stated, these skills "helps them (kids) in all kinds of ways throughout their daily lives, from flexibly switching between different activities rather than getting stuck on one thing, to stopping themselves from yelling when angry, to delaying gratification. Executive function during childhood also predicts important outcomes, like academic performance, health, wealth and criminality, years and even decades later." The study results concluded that children who spent more time in structured activities had less self-directed executive functioning and those who spent more time in free flowing, open ended activities had greater self-directed executive functioning.
The key identified 21st century skills are creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaboration. By leaving no time or space for trial and error, mistakes, and just figuring things out, over-instruction stand in the way of all of these skills. Of course, some level of structure is good for children, but with the endless cycle of structured activities that have taken over modern day childhood, our kids' lives have been thrown off balance leaving them with the inability to think -- for themselves, on their feet, and out of the box.
Ironically, todays' well-meaning parents who are over-scheduling and over-instructing because of fear of competition are seriously under-preparing children for our rapidly changing modern world that increasingly demands complex cognitive skills that cannot be outsourced or automated. The days of awards and promotions for those who know the right answer are quickly disappearing (we have Google for that). We are in the era of conceptualization, where those who ask the right questions, find the right answer, and can apply knowledge within diverse groups and environments will succeed. Those who can discover, communicate, innovate, and connect will flourish.
I sometimes tell my patients that our intuition is often the source of our unhappiness. Intuition is the wisdom gifted to us by nature and when we go against it, we feel unsettled inside. It was those times when I said "I know it doesn't feel right but everyone else is doing it" is when I went against my parental intuition. My parental intuition wanted me to let my children play more freely. I could see they were lit up from the inside with joy when they played. As a psychiatrist, I knew that joy was coming from powerful neurochemicals that were rewarding my children for the essential activity of playing freely. Free play has been proven to stimulate the area of the brain responsible for problem solving, strategic thinking, emotional regulation, and delaying gratification. Free, unstructured play has always been the most important activity of childhood, leading to the development of vital cognitive, social, and emotional skills. My intuition was right, I just had to listen to it.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
Replay some mental pictures of your child over the past week. If all your images are of him or her on the go--heading to an appointment, on the way back from one, doing homework, practicing an instrument--and there are not many moments of quietude and relaxation, your kid is too busy. "Every hour kids come into my office and throw themselves onto my couch complaining that they are overbooked with too many appointments," says Dr. Fran Walfish, a child psychologist and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building A Better Bond with Your Child. "All they want is down time," she says.
OK, so maybe there's no hunchback or gray hair yet, but it's a warning sign if your child looks and acts tired, complains of headaches and pains, isn't sleeping well, or "just doesn't feel right," according to Dr. Kate Cronin, a pediatric physician at the Nemours/AI duPont Hospital for Children in Delaware. Irritability and grumpiness are also signs that their life balance is out of whack, she says. Pay attention to those "grumpy old man" symptoms -- there might be underlying issues.
"One of the surest signs that a kid is overscheduled is when what used to be fun isn't fun anymore," says Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of Crazybusy. "Activities are like ice cream --they're great, but when you have too much, it makes you sick." How can you tell if she's just growing out of a unicorn phase as opposed to protesting an overscheduled life? "They start saying no to everything that used to be fun for them," says Dr. Hallowell. If it's just grumbling about one activity, let it go -- but if nothing seems to appeal to them anymore, take notice.
If you can't read your child's face, head to the data -- look at the grades. One of the most oft-cited signs for an overscheduled child is that his or her grades start to drop. School should be a top priority, and if activities are sapping a child's time and energy away from homework, something needs to get cut. "I hear of kids getting up as early as 5 am to get their homework done because they didn't have time to finish it the night before due to all their activities," says Cronin. That kind of scenario can't be good for grades.
Your gas bills have shot up. Your car has become an extension of the home. You're spending more time with your kids in the car than anywhere else, because you're constantly shuttling them back and forth to activities. This is a sign that activities and schedules are dominating as the focus of family time. "What's worse is that nowadays everyone is plugged in to separate devices," says Hallowell. He suggests unplugging and at least using the car time to have conversation and bond.
Dr. Bob Block, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has been seeing an increase in the rate of depression in kids, and he links it partly to overscheduled lives. "The more activities a kid is involved in, the more opportunities there are to not do well in them -- not live up to a standard, either their parents' or their own." Signs of depression and anxiety include bad moods, being very quiet, avoiding friends and family. Which leads us to...
Your child and her best friend used to be thick as thieves -- now you never see her. Ruling out a fight, a sign your child is too busy is when he or she no longer connects with friends, according to Jennifer Little, Ph.D., an educator for over 40 years. If there used to be sleepovers and phone chats and impromptu catch games, but now your child seems more isolated, take that as a warning sign that she's too busy.
"Families have priorities, and some of those might be mealtimes with the family," says Block. If your kids are dropping out of mealtimes for choir practice or dance rehearsal, then it's time to re-assess priorities. Think back to the past week or two. How many meals did your child eat on the go or in the car? If it's more than a few, it may be time to sit down and redo your child's schedule.
If a child starts to look to you to tell him what to do at every turn, this might be a sign he's overscheduled. "I can often tell if a child is overscheduled by the way they behave in a social setting," says Sheela Raja, clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "When there is not a set agenda, is the child able to use his own imagination? Does the child continually look to adults for what to do next? This is a red flag that a child needs some unstructured or down time. It's actually very important for their cognitive and social development," she says.
One of the easiest ways to tell that your child is too busy? "You as the parent feel stressed," says Cronin. Hallowell agrees: "You're tired of schlepping them around, you dread all the activities--you're tired yourself," he says. "If you as the parent feel this way, chances are that your child does too." If your kid exhibits several of these signs, take some time to re-assess his or her schedule. The good news is, the solution is simple. "As far as life's problems go, this one is extremely solvable," says Hallowell. "You can do something about it, and you have more control than you think you do. Just start by eliminating one activity per week." You'll probably be grateful for the break yourself. Calculate how much your own time is worth at LearnVest, and sign up for LearnVest Moms, a newsletter designed to help you maximize on your time and money.
Follow Dr. Shimi Kang on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drshimikang