Extracurricular Activities, When Is Enough?

extracurricular activities scaled
Extracurricular Activities

As a parent, I realize I am more likely to get my children to do too much rather than too little. Unstructured time is crucial, but we can’t mistake 4 hours playing computer games as valuable unstructured time. We think that if they play hockey, we should aim to play at the highest level. I talk to parents of 11 year-olds who are already talking about their child’s college resume. Extracurricular activities are crucial in increasing opportunities for your child. But they are far more critical in what they can give your child in skills and happiness. Along the way, it is easy for your child to become overscheduled and busy, running him or herself and the parents ragged. This article on the eight recognised intelligences of a child might be seen as a reason for lots of structured activities. But balance must be shown, and many things can be done in a relaxed family environment.

“Sometimes we equate the number of activities with good parenting,” says Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, a health psychologist and Owner and Editor-in-Chief of Praeclarus Press, a small press specializing in women’s health. “Colleges are looking for kids that are well-rounded, not manically overscheduled.” It’s not bad for your child to participate in more than one extracurricular activity, but you have to help them find an appropriate balance even if they push back. Otherwise, your child risks burnout.

The Busy Child—Some Impacts of Being Overscheduled

A study led by Dr. Sharon Wheeler, formerly a Lecturer in Sport and Physical Activity at Edge Hill University, found that most children—88 percent—engaged in organized activities four to five days per week, with 58 percent doing more than one in an evening. This gives you an idea of how busy many children are. Below are ways this affects the child. It is not a judgment but a perspective. It is important that you have a relationship with your child so that they can be honest with you and they feel they can be honest with you.

  • They struggle with mastery. Because your child is doing too much, he or she might struggle with mastery. “If you are spreading yourself too thin, you’re not going to be able to focus and get good at one thing,” says Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of The Case for the Only Child. Your child would be averagely good at so many things. This is not necessarily bad, however. Unless they want to specialize in one sport, there are significant advantages in being exposed to many things.
  • Quality time suffers. Spending quality time with your child strengthens parental bonds, encourages communication, builds the child’s self-esteem, promotes strong academic performance, and lessens the chances of participation in risky behavior. But quality time can only happen when your child is available. With so much on the schedule, there won’t be any room for that. So they may lose out on the benefits of spending quality together. Chasing them to get in a car to be driven is not quality time. However, enjoying that journey and singing along to the radio is. It is how we use that time that is important.
  • Burnout leads to irritability and unhappiness. Children are known to be full of energy, but even that won’t protect them from burnout if their schedule is packed. Your child needs time to relax, catch their breath and recharge their battery. If not, what may follow is exhaustion, a complete loss of interest, and negative moods. If they always feel rushed, and in a way, never fulfilled by reflecting on it. Sleep is fundamental for children. If two nights a week are up late, it can cause significant academic and mental well-being problems. If they have late nights for activities, they need to have earlier nights on other days. No one knows your child better than you, and some need very little sleep. However, sleep is often the first thing to give, but often the most important.
  • Kills creativity and playtime. Throughout their day, a busy child moves from one structured activity to another. There simply is no time to play around and be a child. Not only does this deny them fun, but it also stunts creativity. A lot of children are at their most creative when they’re just playing around. They test their boundaries, manipulate objects, and find creative ways to have fun. Boredom can be a significant stimulus!
  • Pressure and stress. Apart from building impressive resumes for college, parents keep their children overly busy because they want them to be high-performing. Most times, children see this and begin to mount pressure on themselves. This mounting pressure creates stress because they’re afraid to disappoint. However, we must be careful not to remove all stress from our children’s lives. That is not helping them prepare for adulthood. It takes a tough bit of self-reflection from us as parents as to why we want our children to do so much. Is it for them or for how people perceive us? Here we discuss don’t make your child scared of being an adult.
  • Diet suffers. Overscheduling your child also affects you as a parent. You’re always busy chauffeuring them from one activity to the other amongst all the other things you have to do. Consequently, you may give up on preparing healthy meals at home and turn to fast food.

How to Help and Balance Things Out for Your Busy Child

You can dial things back for your overscheduled child. But how do you know when your child is overscheduled? Ask yourself, can they do their homework? Do they participate in family time? Do they hang out with friends? Do they get enough sleep? Do they want to do the activities that they go to?  If the answer to one or more of these questions is no, then they may be overscheduled. Below are ways to support and help an overscheduled child. For us, as adults, the ‘work-life balance’ is very difficult. By doing this with your child you are helping them learn these skills.

  • Take an inventory. Often, parents have their children participating in these activities without stepping back to look at all of them. They pick up new things as they go along but never step back and reflect on the bigger picture. The point of taking an inventory is to know how realistic it is for your child to juggle all these activities daily. Take note of the overlaps that require a long drive to the location and a long waiting time. Other things to note during the inventory are whether your child really wants certain activities and what the motivation is for signing up.
  • Remove your dream activities. Check the inventory for the activities you may have pushed your child to get involved in because it’s something you wished you’d done. Parents sometimes try to live through their children without knowing it. The next thing you may do is to have your child choose what they are interested in doing. Keep an open mind. They may choose something that’s not familiar to you. Children are far more likely to succeed and keep with something when they have chosen it.
  • Resist the pressure. When it comes to their children, even parents have to deal with peer pressure. The neighbor’s children have three extracurricular activities every day, and you can see their parents driving them back and forth. You may begin to feel guilty for cutting down on your child’s schedule. Or feel like you’re a lazy parent for not committing to as many activities. Don’t give in to the pressure. Do what is right for your child. Some children, like adults, thrive off being busy, others do not. You can not be lazy without being ‘full on’.
  • Balance things out with unstructured play. Play may seem like something frivolous and therefore time-wasting, but it is essential to your child’s growth and development. A study led by Kenneth R. Ginsburg, a Professor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, reported that play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles. Between your child’s structured activities, make time for your child to run around outside and just simply ‘hang out’.
  • Don’t pressure them to be the best. That your child now has fewer activities to attend after school is no justification to bear down on them to be the best. “I’m a soccer coach, and I see games with 4- and 5-year-olds on the field,” says Alvin Rosenfeld, former head of child psychiatry at Stanford University and author of The Over-Scheduled Child. “There are two kids on the side picking dandelions, another kid milling about, three kids running up and down, and one kid who is really good, but kicking the ball at the wrong goal. And all the while, the parents are on the sidelines, yelling at them.” This behavior invites pressure to your child and drains the activity of the fun in it. Just sit back, support, and let your child enjoy themself. It was apparent that my son will do different activities than me when he was around 9. So we swapped. He enjoys the sports he has chosen more. It has led me to reflect that many of the activities I did as a child were not me, but I did them as I thought I should.
  • Schedule family time. While cutting down on your child’s schedule, make sure to fix some family time in there. Make family dinners a priority by making it a recurring schedule for your child. Your child spending time with the rest of the family has a lot of short and long-term benefits. Children who participate in family meals develop patience and language skills, are less likely to be depressed or use drugs, and have strong academic performance and lower body mass index.

Final Thoughts in Helping the Busy Child

You know your family and child well. You know that you want the best for them and you will do anything for them. Indeed if you are giving them lots of opportunities, especially if you didn’t, you are doing a great job. Focus on creating a manageable family schedule. Your child might love doing lots. Fantastic, support them by making sure that they have time to eat, sleep and do school work by removing other things from their schedule. When they get to around 8, let them have input. Neither of my children has a deep passion to be the best in the world at anything. The sort of passion that means they will get up at 5 am to do more practice, is fine. Very few humans do. I do insist that they do a range of things that give them different things. A team sport and something that requires standing on a stage or delayed gratification, such as playing an instrument. They can choose what they are. You might look to your child being involved in one artistic, social, and athletic activity. With minimal planning, for instance, two nights a week are sacred for family meals, learning to do spellings in the car, and making sure your children know that sleep is essential can help them achieve their potential. Genuine happiness can not be forced, but rather educated by giving it opportunity.