Overscheduled Families

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As Rhonda Parker approached the playground, she was happy to see another woman with a child at the swing set. Her child seemed to be about the same age as Rhonda’s daughter, Emily. Rhonda began pushing Emily on the swing and smiled at the other girl’s mother. The other woman looked back at Emily appraisingly, and then asked, “How old is she?”

“She just turned 4,” Rhonda replied.

“What preschool do you have her in?”

“She doesn’t go to preschool,” Rhonda answered hesitantly.

“Music lessons, then? Or dance?”

“Well, no.” Rhonda was getting uncomfortable now.

“Lauren has preschool Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings,” said the other mother. “That leaves Tuesday and Thursday mornings for her swim lessons. Then Monday afternoons she has ballet class, Wednesday afternoons she has piano lessons and on Thursday afternoons, she has reading club at the library. I can barely keep up with her schedule, but it’s worth it.” After a pause she added, “Aren’t you worried that your daughter will get behind?”

“Get behind?” Rhonda repeated incredulously. Even though she’d only given Emily a few pushes on the swing, she had lost the urge to chat. Rhonda excused herself, then grabbed Emily’s hand and headed over to the slides, feeling somewhat annoyed at this mother’s competitive attitude and a little unsettled at the same time. Could she be allowing her daughter to fall behind by not involving her in all those outside activities?

Many parents today find themselves confronted with the same question. They worry that if they’re not hauling their children to an endless array of structured activities, the youngsters will miss out or be left behind. On the other hand, if they do decide to get on the activities fast track, mother and father may start to feel like chauffeurs rather than parents.

The pace of life

Of course, just a generation ago, these were hardly major issues for parents. When most of us who are now parents were growing up, we probably spent our afternoons and weekends riding bicycles around the neighborhood with our friends, playing games in vacant lots, climbing trees, jumping rope or playing hopscotch—just having our own informal fun.

Today, parents have their kids involved in any number of activities, from dance lessons, computer instruction, junior theater, nature camp and art classes, to soccer, tee ball, gymnastics and hockey. They start enrolling them when they’re preschoolers and keep them busy all the way through high school.

“The pace of life has picked up and it’s coming out of family time and time for kids to just hang out and be kids,” notes William J. Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of Take Back Your Kids (Sorin Books, 2000).

Weekends used to be a time for families to just kick back and relax together, he says. “Now parents are busy all weekend shuffling their kids to all the different sporting events they’re involved with. That’s in addition to running errands or catching up on housework that didn’t get done during the week since both parents are often working full-time jobs.”

According to a recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota, there has been a decline of 12 hours per week in an American child’s free time over the past 20 years. During the same 20-year period, conversations between family members in a household decreased by 50 percent, the study says.

Pressured parents

Most parents readily admit that constantly running from one event or activity to the next isn’t a lot of fun. So why would they opt for this type of lifestyle for themselves and their children? Alvin Rosenfeld, a medical doctor and author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), believes that most often it’s a matter of parents feeling societal and parental peer pressure to provide more opportunities for their children. “They see everyone else’s kids involved in a lot of different activities and that just seems to be the thing to do,” he says.

Nowadays, parents think that filling their children’s discretionary time with “enriching” opportunities is essential to being a good parent, Doherty says. “We have higher expectations today of what our children should be experiencing, what they should be learning and what they should be doing.” He adds, “Previous generations had much more of a sense that, other than the time spent in school and church, kids do best just playing together on their own. But now we tend to see children more as bundles of creative potential. And so parents enroll their children in all kinds of structured activities in order to maximize that potential.”

It may start out with parents simply wanting to provide their children with a new experience, so they sign them up for a class of some kind. But soon, one or two classes turn into three or four. It’s not long before parents become overwhelmed with all the places they have to take their kids on weeknights and weekends. Not only that, but they often find themselves in a competition with each other, competing to have the child who’s the fastest athlete, the best artist, the earliest reader, the most talented musician, etc.

“We live in a very competitive society,” Doherty remarks. “If we see somebody like a Mary Lou Retton compete in the Olympics for example, then everybody gets the idea that ‘if I get my daughter into gymnastics at age six maybe she can be that good.’ And so we push and push our kids to do more and more.”

Parents may either subconsciously or consciously try to create “trophy kids” as a way to show off to other parents, according to Rosenfeld. “It’s keeping up with the Joneses, only with your children rather than with possessions,” he says.

Even if parents are not particularly competitive themselves, Doherty adds, “they’re still going to notice that all the other five-year-olds are already mastering soccer kicks and judo moves, and they can feel like they’re letting their own child down by not exposing him or her to these things.”

Life in the fast lane

Another part of the equation is that parents themselves are much busier today than parents of previous generations. In many households, both mother and father have full-time jobs, commute an hour or more each way to work and as a result may be away from home 10 hours a day.

“When both parents work outside the home, they need somewhere to send their kids during those after-school and vacation hours and that often means signing them up for organized after-school activities and summer day camps,” notes Susan K. Mackey, a clinical psychologist with the Family Institute at Northwestern University.

But not only are both parents working, they’re also devoting more time to earning a living. Mackey believes this is due to concerns people have that if they don’t put in long hours, they may lose their job. “Nowadays there’s this pressure that if you don’t work 50 to 60 hours a week, you will get laid off if your company is downsized,” she remarks. She contrasts this to the 1950s, when people were pretty much guaranteed to keep their jobs if they were loyal employees and put in 40 hours a week. But that’s not the case anymore. Working overtime, weekends, and being on call 24 hours a day, is standard for employees at many companies.

As parents become busier, this spills over into their kids’ lives. So if a mother doesn’t get home from work each day until 6:30 p.m., her children are likely to find themselves in an after-school program. If both parents are working 40 or 50 hours a week, what might otherwise be downtime during the evenings and weekends is now taken up with housework, grocery shopping and other errands. On top of that, parents may have to make time for their children’s recitals, soccer matches, baseball games and other functions on weeknights or weekends.

The result is a rushed, hurried lifestyle for everyone in the family, but even in the more “traditional” family situations where one parent stays home, life remains more hectic nowadays than it was in the past. “It just seems to have gotten into our culture that we have to be busy, busy, busy all the time,” Mackey says. Many women who choose to stay home with their preschool-aged children are never home more than a couple of hours at a time during the day, because they’re always having to drop their children off or pick them up from one class or another.

Quality time?

Obviously, parents need to earn a living and that may mean working late on occasion or taking a night class now and then. And certainly some outside activities can be very valuable and rewarding for children. The problem is when people overbook their schedules to the point that they’re always rushing somewhere.

Too many outside activities can cut into family time, which for many families is already scarce. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that since 1960, kids have, on average, 10 fewer hours of parental time per week—primarily because both parents work and are working longer hours. Even when parents and children are home together, parents often feel so tired and stressed that they don’t have any emotional or physical energy left for their children.

Once family members jump onto the fast track, life at home may never be the same. Everyone in the family, kids and parents alike, can get tired of constantly being on the run. Often the only interaction parents and kids have is in the car on the way to the next class or sporting event, and that usually goes along the line of “Did you remember your backpack?” “Oh, we’re going to be late!” “What time did you say I need to pick you up?” It’s hardly the kind of conversation that could be classified as quality time.

“I think everybody feels rushed today, which makes free time all the more precious,” Rosenfeld says. “It should make you think twice about how you use your off time. You could spend it hauling your child from one activity to the next, or you could have some one-on-one time with your child, even just doing everyday things at home like cooking dinner or playing a board game together.” He adds that while kids certainly appreciate having their parents sitting in the bleachers, attending your child’s sporting events can’t be counted as family time. “It’s really parenting from the sidelines,” he says.

Not enough family time can mean that children are missing the stabilizing, character-shaping influence of their parents. “It can get to the point that parents seem to know little about their children’s lives, and the influence of peers and the media may be outweighing the influence of parents,” says Isabelle Fox, a family counselor and author of Being There: The Benefits of a Stay-at-Home Parent (Barron’s, 1996).

This is a real danger if parents are workaholics or too focused on competing via their kids’ pursuits. They can inadvertently send the wrong message to their children about what’s really important in life. “The message kids often get is that materialism is more important than true values,” says Frank Vitro, psychology professor at Texas Woman’s University. “Kids can get the idea that succeeding in your career is all that matters and that family relationships take a backseat.”

While all kids need family time, Doherty contends that it is most critical for children at elementary age and younger. “At this age especially, the focus should be on spending time with Mom and Dad rather than on outside activities,” he says. “If you don’t spend regular time with your children when they’re young, how are you going to influence them when they’re teenagers and you’re telling them not to smoke or do drugs? Why would they stop and listen to you if you haven’t built a strong connection with them when they were younger?”

Adds Doherty: “It’s important to remind yourself that your kids are never going to be young again. Once this time is gone, you can never regain it. We ought to enjoy them for the brief flicker of time we have with them.”

Making time for family

Chances are, you can relate to what’s been discussed in this article. Over-packed schedules are a part of our lives these days. It seems everyone, young and old, is rushed, under pressure and stressed out about everything that “needs” to be done and not having enough time to do it all. Which leads to the question: Is it even possible to slow down and simplify your family schedule these days?

“It certainly is!” Doherty is quick to reply. Start by recognizing how important it is to spend time with your children. Be willing to make it a top priority. If you have to, schedule time to be with your children, just as you would schedule a meeting to be with your most important client. Pencil a date on the calendar, if that will help you make the time to be with your kids. Plan for it to be a special time for your children, where you’re giving them your full attention, rather than just having them ride along with you when you’re out running errands.

Before you sign your children up for outside activities, ask yourself why you want to do it. “If you felt pangs when you heard another parent talking about what his kid is doing and so you’re enrolling your kid in the same activity to ‘keep up with the Joneses,’ that’s not a reason to get your child involved in an activity,” Rosenfeld says.

As a parent, you will need to decide what you value most and what’s most important in the long term for you and your children. Ask yourself: Will the activity add something positive to your child’s development or to your family life? How would the activity impact family time? If you and your spouse already have an over packed work schedule yourselves, do you want to spend two nights a week driving your 7-year-old to soccer practice? Know whether you can truly handle adding more commitments to your schedule.

“If you say ‘yes’ to too many enrichment opportunities, the whole family will pay the price,” Rosenfeld warns. “Weigh the benefits of participation against the cost, time, energy, logistical effort, stress and expense—to you, your child, and the rest of the family.” Some families make firm rules (such as one sport per child per season), while others make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Be sure to allow for some downtime every day. This might be time when you would go for a walk with your children in the park, read a book together, do some baking, throw a few basketballs into the hoop outside your garage, or just sit at the kitchen table together while drinking hot chocolate.
“The unstructured, unplanned time is normally the happiest—and possibly most important—time of all for both children and parents,” Fox says. “Doing these sorts of things spontaneously can allow families to relax and enjoy each other.” Not only that, she says unscheduled time allows children the opportunity to use their imagination and be creative, and teaches them to fill their own free time enjoyably.

“Childhood needn’t be an endless treadmill of productivity and self-improvement,” Rosenfeld remarks. Kids need relaxed, carefree time with their parents—time when they aren’t involved in some kind of sport or structured activity where they are expected to perform.

“Allowing your kids to be ’unproductive’ convinces them that you love them for who they are, that they don’t have to perform, and that they don’t have to get awards or be the lead in the school play to have your love,” he says.

If all the other parents you know have their kids booked in constant activities, don’t allow yourself to feel guilty because you’ve got your child in only one or even no activities. Be willing to go against the tide—even if everyone around you is on the nonstop activity treadmill. “Your children have their whole lives ahead of them to pursue outside interests and build careers,” notes Doherty. “But they’re only going to be young once.”

For more helpful information about how to have a happier family life, see our free booklet Marriage and Family: The Missing Dimension.

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