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Is Your Kid Overscheduled?

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Scheduling kids' lives to the max has become a cultural badge of the "good parent." Anxious to give our children a wealth of advantages, we schlep them from swimming to soccer, piano to dance – the list is circumscribed only by how many places it's possible to be at one time.

"Parents are receiving carefully marketed messages that good parents expose their children to every opportunity to excel ... and ensure their children participate in a wide variety of activities," notes a 2006 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). But when activities pile up, squeezing out everything else – play, family time, friends, sleep – kids start to crumble. Burnout rears its ugly head.

The Signs of Burnout
In elementary-age children, burnout tends to show up as exhaustion or agitation with peers, says Derek Shea, a school guidance counselor in Amherst, Mass. "You start to see little things, like the kid snapping back at others."

Dr. J. Kevin Nugent, director of the Brazelton Institute at Children's Hospital in Boston, and lecturer in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, sees a correlation between overscheduling and increased TV viewing in children. "TV is a passive thing," he says. "Children who are fatigued, to get away from the fast pace, they stare at the TV."

In school, the child suffering burnout may put her head on her desk to shut out the world. Or she may move restlessly about the room, unable to focus on what the class is doing. Susan Gulick, a licensed independent clinical social worker at the Children's Clinic in Northampton, Mass., lists difficulty settling down and an inability to manage feelings or to calm oneself as typical of the overscheduled child.

The Impact of Burnout
Many kids are avid joiners, and experts agree there are numerous benefits to be gained from extracurriculars. Sports and dance provide regular exercise. At the elementary level, kids engaged in outside activities tend to do better in school. For children who don't shine academically, the chance to develop other skills and talents boosts self-esteem, Gulick says. Group activities also grease the wheels of social interaction for shy children. It's when a child's schedule rivals that of a corporate CEO, and the majority of parent-child time occurs in the car en route to the next thing, that experts get concerned.

The long-term consequences of overscheduling can be devastating to a child's emotional and physical well-being. The AAP reports "student health services and counseling centers on college campuses have not been able to keep pace with the increased need for mental health services." Shea, who has witnessed the cumulative damage of overscheduling, says, "I get kids who are rushed, traveling at a hundred miles an hour, never feeling like they're doing enough. They get a B+ and they're in my office crying their eyes out." Because academic expectations increase dramatically in the upper grades, kids who are overextended may find their school performance dropping just as the pressure to get into a good college is mounting.

"Ultimately, I think what people are planning for is the future," Shea says. "Kids try to be a jack of all trades and wind up master of none. They have a sense of never really finishing or completing anything."

Kids start feeling they don't have much control over their lives. "They lose their enjoyment of life," Gulick says.

While most successful adults only excel in one or two areas, the message children are getting is that they must excel at everything. This crippling and impossible demand can cause anxiety and depression. Even parents who wish to take a stop-and-smell-the-roses approach with their children fear slowing down when everyone else seems to be on the fast track. "Parents are seeking what they've been told is 'the best,' but the best has to do with relationships." Nugent says.

Achieving Balance
The key word in sorting out a busy child's schedule is balance. The AAP advises that a child's well-being depends on living fully in the present as well as preparing for the future. Balance is achieved through a blend of "[unstructured] play, child-centered organized activities and rich parent-child interaction."

In deciding how much and what to cut back, Gulick suggests parents introduce the dilemma. "Say, for example, 'You're signed up for five different activities and it just isn't working. You're tired, you're irritable. Let's cut this down to three activities at any one time." Then let the child do the choosing.

A good question to ask is What is the activity's real purpose? If it's because "everyone else is doing it," are the social benefits enough to offset the loss of free time? If an activity serves simply to give a working parent cover, consider home childcare for at least a few of these afternoons. The cost may be equal, the child gets some "down time," and you'll avoid pick-up duties at the end of the work day.

Another relevant question: Does the child truly enjoy the activity now? The ballerina, who loved The Nutcracker and wore her pink tutu to bed at 6, may be more interested in guitar than toe shoes at 10. Kids' passions change. Sometimes it's best to move on.

Make a time table with your child of all regular activities he or she engages in each week. Show the hours from waking to bedtime, and use different colored pencils to block in each activity. Start with the "big one": school. Then add dinner, homework and chores. At this point, it's easy to see if soccer practice swallows 90 minutes weekdays, with games on the weekends, in addition to swimming, karate and cello lessons – well, something's got to give.

Once you've agreed on a livable schedule, monitor the list of activities monthly to prevent overload from creeping back in. A good rule is that for every new activity the child wishes to add, one must be subtracted, Gulick says.

Living with Less Structure
More free time sounds like heaven, but, as Nugent points out, children used to having their every waking hour scheduled may not have a clue how to structure things for themselves. They're expecting adults to organize their world for them. The best way to help kids realize the joys of unstructured time is for parents to model it, both in their own lives and with their child, Gulick says.

Shea advises parents to get the kids outdoors – and go out with them. "In my neighborhood, we go outside in all weather," he says. "We roll around in the grass or rake leaves and lie in them." Doors up and down the street start opening and, soon, other kids are joining in and their parents are stopping by to talk.

In our multi-tasking culture, we may be haunted by the fear that unstructured time is wasted time. But "downtime" is when families connect, friendships take root and kids have the opportunity for independent play and self-generated projects. Some of the best interactions occur, the AAP report states, when parents and kids are just hanging out together – talking, cooking, sharing a hobby, tossing a ball. Nugent stresses the value of sharing family meals. "It's a quiet time, a safe time when families can talk together," he says.

Making the shift away from external pressures and tuning in to what feels right for your child and your family takes effort and practice. "I'm finding it tricky," Shea says. "I feel pressured, but I'm trying to listen to my own inner cues. Asking myself, are we only doing this activity because everyone else it doing it?"

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