When I was a kid, like many of my friends I would race home after school so I could change and get outside to play. We used to run from door to door seeing if other kids could also come out to play. You know the word "play," right? Besides when it's referencing a video game? We would stop playing only for dinner and homework and the occasional episode of Get Smart or The Partridge Family. Our time was, for the most part, totally unstructured, unless you consider being told to "be home when the streetlights go on" as structure.
I also learned how to play badminton, squash, tennis, and took swimming and skating lessons. Most happened on the weekend, leaving our weekdays relatively free. Free, compared to the schedules of many kids today, including my own. When all four of mine were engaged in sports, I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of it all. My book, Shut Up & Eat was mostly inspired by the fact that family meals became more about logistics than they did nutrition, and might have included consideration of what one can eat in a car on the way to the hockey arena.
Many parents are driving themselves and their vehicles to the brink all week as they ferry children from karate to guitar to skating to tournaments and extra practices and the dreaded of all time-suck activities, the "Rep" level team, be it hockey, soccer, swimming, etc. (I remember myself at age eight, and my sister at 10 taking the city bus by ourselves to swimming lessons. Shocking.)
There are many theories as to whether exposing our kids to this type of structure and (arguably) overscheduling is good for them. On the positive side they learn teamwork, commitment, engage in physical activity and/or cultural stimulation. Critics would say it's stressful for them, and that they don't know how to amuse themselves for longer than it takes to wait for a brother's gymnastics lesson to end.
My advice? Pick and choose the way you spend their time, your time, and your money when deciding on extra-curriculars. Check your bank balance, your calendar, and make sure it's something they want to pursue, versus your own interest, or those of their friends. Investigate responsibilities for fund raising, out of town tournaments and equipment costs before committing. After all, in the words of William Shakespeare, "The play's the thing," isn't it?
This article was originally run in the Metro News. Kathy Buckworth is the author of six books, including "I Am So The Boss Of You: An 8 Step Guide To Giving Your Family The Business", published by McClelland & Stewart and optioned to Warner Brothers Television. Visit www.kathybuckworth.com and follow Kathy on Twitter @KathyBuckworth
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 <a href="http://www.drfranwalfish.com/" target="_hplink">Dr. Fran Walfish</a>, 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 <a href="http://www.drhallowell.com/" target="_hplink">Dr. Edward Hallowell</a>, 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. <em>Calculate how much your <a href="http://www.learnvest.com/2011/02/whats-your-time-worth/" target="_hplink">own time is worth</a> at LearnVest, and <a href="http://www.learnvest.com/lv-moms/" target="_hplink">sign up for LearnVest Moms</a>, a newsletter designed to help you maximize on your time and money.</em>
Follow Kathy Buckworth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KathyBuckworth