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Are our children over-scheduled?

By Sharon M. Smith

If you’re thinking about buying your child a Blackberry to keep track of their activities; if you find yourself calling out to your child to “hurry up” several times a day; or if you have your child finishing their homework in the car or at the steps of the next event; then you may have an over-scheduled child. From after-school enrichment classes, piano lessons, soccer games in the fall and baseball in the spring, foreign language studies, and drama rehearsals to several camps in the summer, our young children are busier than ever.

Whatever happened to playing outside with the neighborhood kids, biking, making forts out of cardboard boxes, or playing soccer in the street? Our culture has changed since our parents let us “play outside” for hours at a time. Now we have resorted to scheduling our child in organized events.

The reasons parents keep their children active vary. Some include giving their children something they may not have had in their childhood or giving them the opportunity to excel once they are in the working world. Whatever the reason, the situation is the norm. We are now raising “over-scheduled” children.

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Psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, who wrote the book, “The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap,” claims, “In the past 20 years, unstructured children’s activities have gone down 50 percent, family dinners have declined 33 percent, and family vacations are down 28 percent” - all in the name of success. Not all “active” lives lead to a breakdown; what one family might consider “busy,” might be “over-scheduled” to another.

Loren and Tonia Dubberke have three girls: Danae (7th grade), Breanne (5th grade) and Shaye (2nd grade). These girls have been very active since they were young. Their parent’s desire is “to equip their children in their gifted areas so that they can enjoy their gifts.” While they are at it, activities will build self-confidence and help them to learn how to make wise decisions.

When Danae was 2 years old, she joined gymnastics. At 5, she started in a group called Stage Door where she performed by singing and dancing. From kindergarten to third grade, she was in a children’s choir. In first and second grade, she started piano lessons. In third grade, she joined an Oral Interpretation group where they performed poems with movement. In fourth grade, she joined the cross-country team and was in the Bach’s Children’s Choir. She started back into drama in fifth grade.

Between all of that, she learned how to play the trumpet, maintained honor roll, and was voted student of the year. Now in seventh grade, she catches the bus at 7 a.m. and arrives home at 5 p.m. after two hours of daily volleyball practice. Her mom confesses that Danae has always been an energetic child and enjoys her activities. Her other two sisters also participate in choir and ballet. Each child is very active in church, serving in some capacity or another. Tonia admits their family could never be so active if it wasn’t for her and her husband working as a team. He takes the morning shift and shares in the carpooling.

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Rob and Phyllis have one child, Sally*, in third grade. For the last two years, they have not had their daughter in any outside school activities. Sally was physically and mentally tired after school and homework. This year is the first year that Sally has had any extra energy. Her parents have been thinking about enrolling her in a martial arts class. With her parent’s tight work schedule, it becomes tricky to figure out how to get her to and from the lessons. Phyllis loves spending quiet moments with her daughter. It’s those times they have nothing to do, she admits, that are the most “magical.” “And besides,” Phyllis confesses about her daughter, “she is only in third grade.” Phyllis says her daughter has “plenty of time to develop her abilities.”

Although they live somewhat contradicting lives, both families believe parents need to gage their own child and evaluate their individual abilities, organized sports and music will only benefit a child in the long run, and how many activities are added to the family’s list all depends on how much their life-style can handle. Each activity is a huge responsibility and commitment to both the child and the family.

Maureen Weiss, Ph.D. at the University of Oregon, and other researchers have shown, “children who are involved in activities reap important benefits. Involvement in sports, for example, is correlated with higher levels of self-confidence and academic performance, more involvement with school, fewer behavior problems and lower likelihood of taking drugs or engaging in risky sexual behavior.” “But have we gone to an extreme?” asks David Elkins in his article, “The Overbooked Child.” “What happens to children who are involved in so many activities that they feel overwhelmed? What happens to marriages when spouses have no time for each other? What happens to family life?” A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics indicated that “over-scheduling can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and physical ailments.”

So what’s a family to do? Keep everything in moderation, gauge your child’s response to their schedule, include a weekly “family night,” and maybe program in your child’s Blackberry time to just do nothing.