It starts off innocently enough. Maybe your child wants to join an after-school sports team or play the piano. Maybe you think he would benefit from some extra tutoring or by learning a new language. Before you know it, his schedule is jam-packed with "extras" and he is one incredibly over-scheduled child.
Is there really any harm in having your child participate in as many activities as possible? In the short term it seems as though making new friends and learning new skills is beneficial to a child, while in the long run it also seems that being a diverse person could help him get into a good college.
It's this type of thinking and pressure, called "hyper-parenting," that can get parents and children into trouble, warns psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, author of the book The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-parenting Trap. "Hyper-parenting exerts its influence through over-scheduling, which compels well-meaning parents to enroll young children in intense activities in the hopes that their kids will excel at academics, athletics or quirky specialties," says Dr. Rosenfeld.
There's nothing wrong with children participating in a few extra-curricular activities and there's certainly nothing wrong with helping them find something to feel passionate about and at which they can excel. And, as most parents know, it may take a few tries before your child finds that match. However, it's continuing to be a part of all of the activities--those loved and those just tolerated--that can cause problems. "Even parents who expose their kids to numerous different activities often seem to be operating on the notion that if a little is good, a lot must be a lot better," says Dr. Rosenfeld. In fact, that is simply not the case.
Nobody benefits from over-scheduling. Children can feel as though the focus on activities, instead of on their individuality, is an unspoken criticism of their abilities. Not to mention that the stress of trying to be everywhere and do everything permeates parents' lives and affects them just as much as children. In fact, research shows that families trying to maintain this type of schedule tend to have increased anxiety-related disorders and depression, in both children and parents.
So, how can you reduce that stress and still keep your kids involved?
First of all, don't underestimate the power of downtime. Finding his own creative niche through quiet exploration can sometimes be of more benefit to a child than the hustle and bustle of over-participation. "Boredom can be beneficial," says Dr. Rosenfeld. "It can stimulate kids to hear the soft murmurings of their inner voice, the one that makes them write this unusual story or draw that unique picture."
Here are some other things to think about as you try to avoid over-scheduling your child:
- Don't let coaches, neighbors or friends make you feel as though your child needs to doing more. As Dr. Rosenfeld puts it, "Support a child’s right to be not a professional but a kid."
- It's a matter of cutting back, not elimination. Choose one or two days a week during which nobody has to be shuttled to practice or lessons. You might be surprised by how much pressure is relieved.
- Remember your fundamental job as a parent. It's not to create the next American Idol or sports superstar; it's to love and accept your child and give him the tools to find his own way through life.
None of that means you shouldn't encourage him to participate in some type of activity. In fact, it's important that he does. It just means that after you've exposed him to many novel experiences, you should let him choose which activities to explore further. After all, reminds Dr. Rosenfeld "Every devoted parent pushes their kids some; children need to know that their parents expect them to make something of their lives. But, it is the children who have to do the very hard work of figuring out what they hope to become."