Back-to-school, Back-to-Busy?

Back-to-school: It’s exciting (New clothes! New notebooks! Structure! Childcare!), but stressful too, because it brings with it: homework, the sleep schedule adjustment and, of course, an overwhelming array of afterschool activities.

I believe that parents should expose their children to a broad range of activities, so that a child can develop a passion. But I warn parents to be on their guard, especially in the new school year, that they don’t let their children become involved in too many “good” things. There is nothing so sad as the child who is overscheduled and unsatisfied. And for parents too, I hate to see a family’s whole life revolve around driving to endless activities with no room for family downtime and time together.

I offer my recommendations below for putting afterschool activities in proper perspective. I also give you some basic tools as parents to make the best choices for your children, and your family as a whole.

Make your choice, and don’t feel guilty. Recently, CNN featured an article by a parent struggling to keep his children from being overscheduled and yet offer activities to fulfill their unique potentials. I understand this fear, but don’t expect that your child needs to actualize his full potential as a human being while he’s in grade school. Parents often express this very concern to me, worrying that their children are not doing enough and already worrying about college before they are even out of  the fifth grade. The activities become more about mom or dad’s own anxiety than about what is good for the child.

I agree with Dr. Paula Bloom, the psychologist quoted in the CNN article, who says that kids must balance human doing with human being. Kids and teens need time to play, rest, figure things out, and just be in an unstructured environment. They need a chance to develop optimism, relationships, etc. that aren’t defined by a structure of activities that their parents have created. I encourage parents to let go of the anxiety that they are not doing enough.

Take time to schedule in unscheduled time. Many parents are eager to sign their children up for extracurricular activities such as sports and tutoring, but it’s important that you give them the opportunity to settle into school. Take baby steps and understand that your child may not have the time or energy after a full day of lessons and socializing to jump right into swim or language lessons. I recommend waiting till at least the end of September to see if kids (or you for that matter) are ready to sign up for more time away from home. You may have the world’s next piano virtuosi, but he also needs time set aside for R&R.

But aren’t busy kids less likely to get into trouble? It’s true that busy children are less likely to get into trouble. For example, they’re not hanging out at the mall. However, the question should be, What is the right amount of busy? I recommend, especially when kids are young, a wide variety of activities. If you’re looking for a formula, perhaps one physical, one cultural/musical/artistic, and one religious, if that is consistent with your beliefs and values. That gives your child two days during the week that are unscheduled and are available for parent/child activities, play dates, or just being alone or with siblings.

The challenge is that those children engaged in team sports often get scheduled multiple days a week for an individual sport and have no time to try other things. Then, if they are injured or lose interest, they often do not know what else to try.

Reconnect with family time. Plan to be more accessible than usual during the first month or so of your child’s new school schedule. Take it easy on errands and late day meetings. You’ll need to address any anxieties that may come up and set time aside to talk things through with your child. Dinnertime can be a great opportunity to discuss how your child’s day went and get the family into a regular routine of sharing stories and addressing feelings. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents build in time for themselves to transition from work to home and kid time. That keeps parents from becoming overloaded and allows them to debrief kids without added stress.

Above all, have courage to make the right choices for your family, without comparing your family to your neighbors or other families at school. What is right for one family will likely not be right for yours. And as the year goes on, take time to reevaluate how your child is benefitting from the activity. Parents need to acknowledge that life is a balancing act, and always be prepared to adjust as is appropriate for your child(ren).