Modern multitasking begins early in life. Many of today’s kids are overscheduled, attending school all day and shuttling from one extracurricular activity to the next after the bell rings. Parents spend their post-work hours car-pooling, struggling to find time to serve a basic family dinner in between sports practice, music lessons, test prep and play rehearsal. Homework takes up the remainder of the evening hours, leaving little time for play or for kids simply to unwind.
In November’s MetroKids, we asked whether homework is helpful or harmful. The same question can be posed in reference to the overscheduling of extras.
Why so busy?
What’s behind the compulsion to pile on after-school extracurriculars? “Many parents believe that enrolling their child in a variety of activities provides opportunities for advancement,” says Robin Hinmon, executive director of Brandywine Academic Services in Wilmington, DE. “The world we live in is increasingly competitive, and having a diverse résumé is believed to be necessary for acceptance into colleges. Parents want their children to try everything so that they can determine where their gifts may lie.”
Jason and Noel Buchanan of Elk Township, NJ, know this scenario well. Two of their children, 8-year-old Austin and 6- year-old Alexa, are extracurricular poster kids: Both participate in gymnastics, soccer and church activities. Austin also plays baseball; Alexa takes ballet and tap dance and has been learning three different roles to perform in The Nutcracker ballet this holiday season.
“We figure while they are young, they should try as many things as possible. As they get older they can narrow down to what they enjoy doing,” says Jason. “Our only caveat was that our kids needed to do something after school. It has been their choice to do so many different things, and if that’s what they want, we are going to make it happen.”
Are they overwhelmed?
So far, the Buchanan kids are handling their busy schedule well. But how can parents tell if their child is becoming overwhelmed by the academic/extracurricular balancing act?
“Children tend to manifest a lot of their feelings through their behaviors, because they are still developing an emotional vocabulary,” says Hilary Katz, a certified school and clinical social worker at Equilibria Psychological and Consultation Services in Philadelphia and Fort Washington, PA. She advises parents to watch for behavioral clues that enough may be enough.
For instance, kids may seem unmotivated to get to an activity they once felt enthusiastic about. They may throw a temper tantrum prior to class time or act like they’re being forced to participate, either of which may start to become a normal pattern of behavior. “This is an opportune time to sit down and invite your child to talk about how he is feeling about his current schedule,” says Katz.
Take a breather
If “over it” is how your child is feeling, it’s time to rethink how you look at the after-school schedule.
- Work in downtime. Rebalance your weekday schedule to accommodate daily downtime. If your child has no breathing space between homework, sports, music, dinner, bath time and bedtime, he has no ability to recharge and be at his best for anything, be that schoolwork or extracurricular activities.
- Praise the effort. Let your child know that you realize how hard she’s working and that you appreciate the effort she’s putting in to honor her commitments. Ask which activities are the most important to her and which she feels she’s participating in out of obligation.
- Tamp down your own expectations. You may be a master multitasker, but kids, especially elementary-age kids, need a less hectic schedule and responsibility load. Be honest about whether your child is participating in so many activities because he wants to or because you think he should. “He needs to believe he has some say in what his life looks like, and a parent’s best bet is to collaboratively problem-solve when necessary,” says Katz. Take his concerns to heart and be open to letting him drop an activity to gain purchase on his equilibrium.
Cheryl Lynn Potter is a freelance writer from South Jersey.