Is Your Family Overscheduled?

You love your kids and want to see them develop as well rounded and adjusted adults. You want them to be able to cope with the demands and stresses of adult life, make the sound decisions, have the right social and coping skills, and be able to create their own happiness and fulfillment.

In fact, you may believe that to successfully compete in a world where there are fewer jobs, and the competition for those jobs is stiffer, it’s critical they have more than just the basics of education in order to get into the right schools. So you make sure they’re involved in activities that will provide the added experiences to round them out and give them that edge. But sometimes, especially with more than one child in the house, and multiple activities per child, a family commitment to extracurricular activities can become overwhelming.

Sometimes referred to as “aggressive parenting,” this kind of ambitious involvement in multiple extracurricular activities has many children stressed to the point of ill health and excessive anxiety. And it has disrupted family life, nearly eliminated sacred mealtimes that allow connection, and even curbed the opportunity for healthy brain development.

Is more always better? Does the number of activities determine your child becoming well-adjusted and self-reliant or you being a better parent? Let’s take a look…

Some families thrive, having sculpted busy, messy lives. Other families have driven themselves to the breaking point by over scheduling.

Robyn Tongel pauses for a moment before talking about her children’s activities. “When I give you the list of things, it’s probably going to shock you,” she said, laughing.

Eleven-year-old Ellie and 9-year-old Jack are both in the gifted program at their Plum elementary school. In the wintertime, Ellie also participates in the Civic Light Opera Pre-Professional School, gymnastics, travel soccer, various academic teams, plays piano and flute, serves as student government representative and leads worship at church. Jack wrestles six days a week and plays travel soccer. Both children also have acted professionally in a television commercial for Uncle Charley’s sausages and a print ad for Chevron.

“Some people think, ’I can’t believe you do all this stuff — it’s crazy,’ ” said Mrs. Tongel. “But we are a family and we enjoy all these things together and support each other. I love every minute of it.”

For Amanda McCreadie of Grove City, it’s a delicate balance. She has four sons and allows each of them to choose one activity. But even limited to one (currently wrestling and baseball) she worries about the erosion of family time. “We thought we were doing well because we made them each only pick one activity,” she said. “We didn’t think through that one activity will still create scheduling and transport issues.”

She and her husband do a lot of after-school shuffling —- she’ll sometimes run home to cook dinner in between drop-offs, and the family is rarely home on weekdays to eat at the same time. “We had company on Sunday and that was the first time my dining room table had seen the light of day since before Christmas,” she said in late January. “Family dinner just doesn’t happen.” – Adapted from Anya Sostek with Post Gazette

Impact of Overscheduling

Dr. Jonathan E. Goldberg, clinical psychologist with advanced training in neurocognitive testing, child/adolescent psychiatry, firmly believes that overscheduling is detrimental. Other research indicates otherwise. We will look at both angles.

In an address to the parents of The Fessenden School, Dr. Goldberg reviewed a longitudinal study by the University of Minnesota that measured changes in children’s and families’ time use.

The study sampled diaries in 1981 and 1997, and found that in just this time span:

  • There was a decline of 12 hours per week in overall free time for children
  • Play time decreased by 3 hours a week
  • Unstructured outdoor activities such as walking, hiking or camping fell by 50%
  • Household conversations dropped by 100%, meaning that the average American family spent NO time per week when talking as a family was the primary activity. (Overall, in 1997, children averaged only 45 minutes a week in conversation with anyone in the family)
  • Religious participation: a decline of 40% in hours per week in children’s (ages 3-12)
  • A five-fold increase from 30 minutes a week to over 3 hours a week in passive spectator leisure, NOT counting television or other forms of “screen time”
  • Family dinners: A 33% decrease over three decades in families who say they have dinner regularly as a whole family. (This finding is from repeated annual surveys of American families. – Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.)

The decline in family dinners is the most concerning of these trends, according to Dr. Goldberg.

He cited a National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University report saying that children who ate five or more meals with their family per week displayed higher levels of academic achievement and psychological adjustment, and lower levels of alcohol risk, drug use, early sexual behavior, and suicidal rates. In fact, he noted, family meals were found to be a better predictor of scholastic achievement and behavioral adjustment than time spent in school, studying, church, playing sports and art activities.

But there is evidence to the contrary as well. According to a scientific study “Family Meals and Child Academic and Behavioral Outcomes” by Daniel P. Miller, PhD, Jane Waldfogel, PhD, and Wen-Jui Han, PhD, “there were no significant (p<.05) relations between FMF [family meal frequency] and either academic or behavioral outcomes, a novel finding. These results were robust to various specifications of the FMF variables and did not differ by child age.” (US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 2012)

So, if missing family meals due to overscheduling doesn’t do much harm to kids, what other negative outcomes can result from it? Well, the most concerning one comes from the lack of time for unstructured play. Unstructured, creative, imaginative play results in many positive benefits. First and foremost, it develops the child’s brain, even more than structured classroom time.

When it comes to brain development, time in the classroom may be less important than time on the playground.

“The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,” says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. “And without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed,” he says.

It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, Pellis says. So play, he adds, is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork.

But to produce this sort of brain development, children need to engage in plenty of so-called free play, Pellis says. No coaches, no umpires, no rule books.

“Whether it’s rough-and-tumble play or two kids deciding to build a sand castle together, the kids themselves have to negotiate, well, what are we going to do in this game? What are the rules we are going to follow?” Pellis says. The brain builds new circuits in the prefrontal cortex to help it navigate these complex social interactions, he says.

And in people, he says, an added bonus is that the skills associated with play ultimately lead to better grades. In one study, researchers found that the best predictor of academic performance in eighth grade was a child’s social skills in third grade.

Another hint that play matters, Pellis says, is that “countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less.” 

But academic achievement is not the only benefit of unstructured play.

There are other benefits to play: it requires attention and sharpens the senses; it demands mental dexterity and flexibility; it thrives on possibility; it expands human variability; it expands our nervous system; it allows us to take risks and try on new roles; it teaches kids how to get along with others and control themselves; it encourages creative problem-solving; it fosters decision making, memory, thinking and speeds up mental processing; it reduces aggression; it develops brain cells that exert control over attention, regulate emotions and control behavior. (1) Get Parenting Help Now 

Finally, unstructured time with family develops your child’s character.

First, I’d ask myself what kind of adult you want your kid to grow up to be,” Alvin Rosenfeld author of “The Over-Scheduled Child” said. “And then I’d ask how you get there. How do you balance academics, athletics and character?”

Most parents Rosenfeld encounters say developing a strong character is most important. “Unfortunately, actions don’t always follow aspirations in terms of saying character is most important,” he said.

“And unscheduled time with family, but without goals or plans, is key to character development,” Rosenfeld said. “Those are the times children are more likely to wonder about the world and to ask questions.”

And unplanned family time has the added benefit of helping parents and children learn more about each other. “So you know your parents, and your parents know you,” Rosenfeld said. “That’s an essential facet of emotional health. If you feel your parents know you, love you and care for you, life can be difficult, it can challenge you, throw you curves, but you’ll always have that recollection inside and feel beloved.”

So Is Your Kid Maxed Out? Is Your Family Overscheduled? Trouble Signs

What are some of the red flags that might tell you to put the brakes on just a bit?

Warning Signs to look out for:

  • He/she doesn’t daydream
  • Looks worried
  • Looks stressed
  • Is always tired
  • Is plagued by headaches
  • Complains of pains that come and go
  • Has emotional meltdowns
  • Doesn’t want to go do the activity
  • Is “too busy” to take time to do silly and fun things
  • Video games, texting and Facebook take the place of play dates and sleepovers as social time spent with friends
  • Their grades are suffering
  • They are not sleeping well or enough
  • They are sulky or sad, and finally,
  • They’ve missed several family meals lately, eating on the run

Real Simple magazine online adds two more crucial indicators:

Your Child Is Suddenly Needy
If a child starts to look to you to tell him what to do at every turn, this might be a sign he’s overscheduled. “I can often tell if a child is overscheduled by the way he behaves in a social setting,” says Sheela Raja, clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “When there is not a set agenda, is the child able to use his own imagination? Does the child continually look to adults for what to do next? This is a red flag that a child needs some unstructured or downtime. It’s actually very important for their cognitive and social development,” she says.

Her Best Friend Isn’t Around Anymore
Your child and her best friend used to be thick as thieves—now you never see her. Ruling out a fight, a sign your child is too busy is when he or she no longer connects with friends, according to Jennifer Little, Ph.D., an educator for over 40 years. If there used to be sleepovers and phone chats and impromptu catch games, but now your child seems more isolated, take that as a warning sign that she’s too busy. 

And finally, do YOU need a break as a parent? Do you find yourself spending more time in the car than at home? Are you sleep deprived from returning home late at night to chores that could have been scheduled during time spent at home with the family?

Are you just plain exhausted from all that running? You may be caught between taking care of your kids and also aging parents. In that case, be extra careful. If there is no buffer of down time with the family, and time spent refreshing yourself and replenishing your energy, you may not have the strength to fight a cold or flu, or worse yet, become vulnerable to life threatening Illnesses and chronic conditions.

What To Do About Being Overscheduled

Quiet your anxiety that you’re not doing enough for them – when you feel that, the go-to solution is to STOP everything and give them your undivided attention – go do something together, start a special project, or call out for pizza and do nothing.

Declare a day a week of rest for everyone – your own Sabbath, to give everyone your undivided attention and presence.

Then call a family meeting and evaluate. Are you all trying too hard? Is each child happy with their choices and are you as a parent feeling comfortable juggling everything? Is the family’s schedule supporting your happiness or pulling you into a downward spiral?

There are many issues to consider if your family is running around like a chicken with its head cut off. We hope we’ve armed you with some information to consider if you’d like to evaluate the situation and make some changes. Please access the short assessment below to assist you. And let us know about some of the challenges you face, and how you’ve decided to handle them.

BONUS: “Is My Child Overscheduled?” Download this short assessment here and tally your results: