Are Extracurriculars Really Enriching Our Kids' Lives?

Are Extra-Curriculars Really Enriching Our Kids' Lives?
Are Extra-Curriculars Really Enriching Our Kids' Lives?

When it comes to our kids, my husband and I are fairly anti-activity. We cherish time to relax, time for play and time for our family to be together at home. This is why the last month has been TOTAL HELL.

I've been initiated into the world of too many extracurricular activities. My 10-year-old son, who has never really played sports, decided to try lacrosse. He has practice Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6:30 to 8:30 pm, which means we don't get to start the bedtime routine until 9 pm at the earliest. My 6-year-old daughter decided to try soccer, her first sport. She has practice Friday evenings at 5:30 pm. They both have games on Saturdays. And let's not forget Scout meetings on Monday evenings.

I want my kids to be active, but I don't care if they excel in sports. In fact, I'd much rather they excel in school and not even worry about sports. At the same time, though, I know that it's important for them to get exercise and experience being part of a team, so I was in full support of both of them signing up for sports this Spring. Now part of me regrets it.

Related: Why quitting can actually be good for children ... and you

My children are stressed out. They seem hurried and frustrated and are becoming more agitated with each other. I've also seen a major uptick in crying. Yesterday after school, they were both sobbing about something or another. Not crying - sobbing. When I said it was because they were tired, that made them cry even more. Now I'm wondering whether I made a mistake. How many activities are too many? When does it all become too much?

According to Putting Family First, which works on raising awareness and providing tools for busy families, the University of Michigan took at look at American kids between 1981 and 1997 and found they'd lost an average of 12 hours per week of free time and unstructured play. Meanwhile, time spent on structured play, like participating in sports teams, had doubled from 2 hours and 20 minutes per week to 5 hours and 17 minutes per week. I'm not sure how much worse things have gotten since 1997, but I know my son is probably spending 6 hours per week on lacrosse alone, and he seems to be suffering for it.

Related: Fake interviews with people I hope I'll never meet ... The Crazy Sports Dad

Several books have been published in the last few decades - including The Hurried Child, The Price of Privilege, and The Overscheduled Child - about children being hurt by overscheduling, leading to them suffer from problems like anxiety, headaches and insomnia. Others say children are doing just fine with all of these activities, and that the benefits outweigh the risks. In 2007, Time's John Cloud argued that the overscheduled child is really just a myth:

"… a team led by Joseph Mahoney of the Yale psychology department wrote a paper for the journal Social Policy Report showing that most of the scheduling is beneficial: kids' well-being tends to improve when they participate in extracurriculars. The paper notes that only 6% of adolescents spend more than 20 hours a week in organized activities. And there's no consistent evidence that even these enthusiasts are worse off. Instead they report better well-being and less drug use. "

Cloud argued that children have been working hard since the dawn of time and that the whole overscheduled family meme may be an invention of parents who are tired of schlepping children to and fro. Laura Vanderkam said the same thing in the Wall Street Journal, adding that there are probably some children who've been pushed to do too much, but the problem, "… is when this tiny sliver of American children sets the cultural narrative, chipping away at support for additional study time and the after-school activities that less-privileged children need."

Related: Are kids' sports worth the time commitment?

Maybe all of that is true, but I know that my kids seem stressed out and tired and it worries me. So what am I and other parents with busy-bee children to do? Here are a few strategies you might consider:

1) Both WebMD and the Ladies Home Journal report that one real problem is parents passing on their own stress to their kids. The more we seem anxious about our own work and all the activities the family has signed up for, the more that trickles down to our children. I've started practicing deep breathing techniques together with my kids, which I hope models good self-care and helps all of us find a few moments of relaxation and calm. I'm also determined to try not to talk about my own stress as much in front of them.

2) Putting Family First says to consider dropping one activity, or to plan for a family sabbatical from activities for a period of time during the year. I love this idea. I think it will be important that I require not only the kids to have a sabbatical but myself and my husband to take on less as well during that time period so that everyone benefits.

3) There's a difference between true enrichment and simply overpacking the schedule. encourages parents to be clear on what the purpose is for joining in an activity: "If it's because 'everyone else is doing it,' are the social benefits enough to offset the loss of free time?" If the extracurricular activity doesn't meet the purpose, it's not worth doing it. Amen to that.

Now off to lacrosse …

- By Katherine Stone
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