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Is Overscheduling for Real? 5 Ways to Keep Your Kids Balanced

I’m standing in the kitchen at a three-year old’s birthday party talking with the other moms about our kids’ interest in music when a quiet, yet distinct turn takes place in the seemingly benign conversation.  Suddenly, we have entered the realm of, “My kid will be better than yours because I am a better parent than you.” It always has to go there, doesn’t it?

Mom #1: “We practically have a whole room filled with musical toys because he just loves all of them. And we want him exposed at an early age.”

Mom #2: “Really? We won’t buy Bobby any musical toys. We only let him play the real thing so that his ear will get tuned to the right pitch.”

Aaandd that’s my cue. I’m out.

I have some difficulty functioning in a society that has deemed it subpar to just participate and have fun.  It starts early and ends . . . when, exactly? I see it in every age group. Pre-schoolers start lessons at age three and evolve into first graders with hired athletic trainers the moment they show promise at kicking a ball. Nine year-old girls and boys choose “their” sport to the exclusion of others because they HAVE to get into a certain league if they want to make the high school team. And the teenagers . . .

When I’m not being a mom to my own kids, I’m a high school educator. Each year, where I used to be impressed, I am now dismayed at activity lists and resumes for seniors applying to college. From the academic middle of the pack on up, I’m left asking kids, “when do you sleep?” The response is almost always a telling, sheepish shake of the head. Today’s climate has kids (and parents) believing that to be somebody, they have to be athletes, scholars, musicians, volunteers, and leaders. They need to not just participate, but slay. And while they’re at it? They should be global-minded, socially sensitive, and darn good-looking. And they usually can’t even tell you what they’re getting out of all of that—except to say that they’re hoping it will get them into “a good school.”

All this work to carve out opportunities for success and happiness, yet adolescent stress, depression, and anxiety rates keep creeping up. Family time together= high-tailing it to the next activity while shoving down dinner in the car. Have you ever seen a genuine smile on the face of the mom describing her chauffeur duties and the small fortune spent on participation fees and equipment? Not I.

I get how it happens. I stay up nights thinking, “Why doesn’t she show any interest in STEM??? Maybe I should send her to Robotics Camp. But she LOVES music, and I haven’t gotten her into piano/voice/guitar/violin lessons yet… How will she ever compete?? But what if all the girls are doing flips on the playground and she doesn’t know how? What if she feels alienated??? Gotta get her into gymnastics!” It’s SO easy to get sucked in—like quicksand. And according to The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook and a recent episode of Elena of Avalor, when one is in quicksand, one must reach out. SO . . .

I got some insight from Dr. Jim Wellborn, a clinical psychologist who works with adolescents in one of Nashville’s more affluent areas. Contrary to my assumptions, having kids’ daily lives scheduled to the hilt may not be the root of the anxiety and stress. Today’s youth may not actually be busier than the youth of the past. It’s just that instead of coming home after school to help put food on the tables, like our parents and grandparents, kids now come home very little. The time that family contributions used to take? Replaced with individual enrichment.

Combine that with the changes in our booming city, where long-time neighbors are rare.  Mix in the cultural changes post 9-11 and Sandy Hook, where all things frightening seem to take up more space than rainbows and flashlight tag. What do we get? Fewer parents who feel safe leaving their kids with true unsupervised free time.

your kids your schedule keeping sane

But although well-meaning (and even justified) hyper-scheduling may not cause severe damage to our kids’ psyches, we may be laying the groundwork for future issues. Dr. Wellborn has also observed that a fully structured schedule with little to no time left open for our kids to experience the “have to’s” that help households run smoothly sets them up for a rude awakening as adults. They have to learn that paying the bills and changing the oil in the car are real things that require real time. Are we doing them any favors by keeping kids from “real world” time commitments?

Sigh. We’re all going to find some ingenious ways to screw up our kids, no doubt. But how do we get this part of it right? Can we shelter them from the harsh realities while preparing them for the regular ones?  And if they aren’t the president of everything, can they still get into college?  Will they be able to compete?

Some Suggestions:

Leave room for simply participating and learning.

Remember when I said that the overscheduling itself is not the root of all evil? It’s not. The scale tips when participating in everything turns into WINNING at everything. The pressure to achieve is far more dangerous than the desire to sample widely from the activity buffet that is the Greater Nashville Area.

Heed the advice of the college reps and school counselors.

It’s not the quantity of the activities, but the quality—commitment to fewer activities, but with a greater take-away.  That doesn’t mean your child should only sign up if they can also be President.  Don’t let them/force them to sign up for everything OR be a leader in everything just because it looks good on a resume.  Balance.  You’ll know when it’s missing.  Monitor and adjust.  And if the time comes when your kid doesn’t seem to have the perspective to know when to quit–be the parent.  You may have to make the decision.

Look for what makes your child light up from the inside.

Go crazy with it if she loves it! But don’t go crazy with everything. A friend of mine who gives music lessons at Sky Studios said he thinks everyone should do, at a given time, one fine art, one sport, and one other organized activity—enough to be well-rounded but not like a balloon stretched too thin and about to pop.

Make “free time” actual free time.

With this generation of social media addicts (really) there is added pressure to constantly be plugged in and available.  Kids are terrified of what they’ll miss if they are away from it. When your kids have free time at home, get the devices out of their hands. Truly encourage down time, free play, and daydreaming. The lament of romantics is that kids don’t know how to just “be” anymore. So when you think that you’re letting them be, make sure you take away the temptation to just “be” online with the rest of the angsty world.

Expose your child to learning opportunities.

If you’re shaking your head thinking, “but MY kid doesn’t want to do ANYTHING organized. I can’t just let him not do anything for the sake of his creative freedom,” you’re right. The solution to the overscheduling problem is not to underschedule. For many adolescents, idle hands are the devil’s proverbial workshop. If your child has been able to dodge the pressure to keep up, there’s some good in that. It’s also important to expose him to learning opportunities and maybe even find some interests. Start small. He’s less likely to refuse when the whole family is involved and he’d be the only one sitting out. If he’s resistant to teams and clubs, do activities as a family, and—as Wellborn suggests—“don’t focus on how well they’re doing it, but THAT they’re doing it.”   

Your kids are good enough. They’re smart enough. And doggone it, people like them. It’s that simple.

False. It is not that simple. But if you keep your perspective and mind those Joneses and their superiority complexes, you have a solid chance of screwing your kid up with something completely different than overscheduling.

Small victories.

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