Over-scheduled Kids: It’s Not The Activity, It’s The Parents

I was talking to a co-worker yesterday about all the activities our kids are involved in these days. Boy Scouts. Sports. Martial Arts. Are we over-scheduling our kids these days? We couldn’t help but wonder.

Mood music (Pardon the coding gibberish around the video. There’s a glitch I haven’t figured out yet, but the music plays just fine):

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As a kid, I resisted activities like those offered at the Jewish Community Center off of Shirley Ave., Revere. I preferred walking the streets or reading comic books.

The difference between then and now is that back then I had a choice.┬áKids today don’t seem to have a choice.

That’s how it looks sometimes, anyway.

I hated the kids involved in all the usual activities back then, so I chose to be a loner. Smoking cigarettes under the General Edwards Bridge connecting Revere and Lynn was a much better way to spend time, I firmly believed. There was a cool network of catwalks right below street level and you could hide up there all day and do all the things a reckless kid will do.

A few years ago, my then-boss Anne Saita was telling me about all the activities she had to shuttle her daughters around to later that day. I asked why her kids were so crammed with activities. I noted that I didn’t do that stuff as a kid and I turned out OK.

“The difference is that the world is a much more dangerous place today,” she said.

I brushed it off at the time. Every parent thinks their kid is living in a more dangerous world than the one they grew up in.

Now here I am, with kids who are older, and it seems they are involved with everything. Both are Scouts, which often has us running out to meetings and activities more than twice a week. There are talent shows and plays with constant rehearsals. I see friends’ kids running to Scouts meets from their martial arts meets.

In the case of my kids, I don’t mind. They seem to enjoy it all, though there are times they lament over the lack of free, unstructured time.

I do find myself wondering about how we schedule our children’s time, though: Are we creating an environment that’s too fast and stress-filled for them in an effort to keep them out of trouble?

Are we putting them under the kind of strain that will lead to drug abuse and suicide later on?

Like most things in life, there’s no easy answer to that question.

Would I have been spared an adulthood of OCD and addiction if my time were more structured and disciplined as a kid? Probably not.

Are we damaging our kids by making them do too much now? I tend to doubt that, too. My kids certainly didn’t complain about getting to camp on a battleship for one Scouts outing.

I’m no expert, and I have no interest in peppering this post with all the research that’s available on this question, because at the end of the day, I think there’s a simpler point to make:

It’s not the activities we have to worry about. It’s us. The parents.

I look at myself and see a guy who went through a lot of rough stuff as a child. I desperately want it to be better for my children.

That’s good in that I have a golden opportunity to raise them happy and raise them right. That’s bad because as a man with OCD, there’s a real danger that I’ll push them too far. Parents have a habit of trying to live vicariously through their children and I’m no exception.

My wife is better at thinking through the schedule, so I’m thinking Sean and Duncan have a better-than-average chance at surviving a childhood of hyperactivity.

On the other hand, I’ve seen parents that push their kids to the brink all the time. God help the kids if they don’t win an award every month. God help them if they lose a game. Remember the dad who went to prison for beating another kid’s father to death over a hockey game? That’s when the activity has gone well past something fun for the kids to do and learn from.

My parents didn’t push me to do more activities as a kid. My father kept recommending I do more at the community center, but in the end I got to make the choice. My mother was too absorbed in her own world to advise me one way or the other.

It would be easy to say it was a different time and place, but I have no idea how things might have been different if I were forced to live by a more disciplined schedule.

Since the mental disorder I eventually struggled with is tied to a problem with brain chemistry, I think I would have put all the stress on myself and been a lot sicker as a result.

It’s even possible that all the unstructured, even reckless time as a kid helped me survive the adult struggles later on.

Only God knows for sure.

All I know now is that I have to keep an eye on my children’s schedule. I have to make sure they enjoy what they’re doing and that they’re learning about life in a way where they’re not stressing too much over the little things.

As a parent I can push them off the cliff, or help them build the future they want.

I’ll end this one with a request for feedback. To the readers who are parents, what is your kids’ schedule like and do you feel strongly about them having a busy schedule vs. a more unstructured one?

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2 thoughts on “Over-scheduled Kids: It’s Not The Activity, It’s The Parents

  1. Our kids have “something” each afternoon. They are 4 and 5. Four days, they have extended day at school, where they get to pick which afternoon activity to pick, and are home before 4. One day, we have errand/adventure time before later afternoon gymnastics. They still get some free play time each day, but not enough to get bored and fight all afternoon. In the summer, we balance camp with actual family vacations and “vacation weeks” where there is no camp but we just go on fun adventures together or have playdates. The 4yo prefers more unstructured time, the 5yo thrives on structured challenges, and we couldn’t overschedule her without overscheduling her chauffeurs first. ;)

    We spend lots of time considering how to create the right environment for them, since the answer doesn’t stay the same for long.

  2. Hi Bill,

    Great post, as always! My kids (6 and 10) are reasonably busy with sports and various activities, but we try to strike a balance between structured activities and unstructured playtime with friends and so on.

    One of my kids (6 year-old girl) is much more comfortable than the other (10 year-old boy) with unstructured time on their own and I think that has more to do with their personalities than anything else.

    The boy is a keen hockey player and spends 10 months of the year on the ice. Unlike many, we don’t send him to any hockey camps in the summer – he looks forward to the free time in the summer as the end of Spring hockey approaches, but starts to miss hockey again just in time for when the regular season starts up again.

    I think having breaks from the schedule is the key – for kids and parents alike.

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