My children could never catch up with my friend Margaret's children. Her children were always enrolled in at least one music lesson and one art lesson, while playing two sports and participating in Scouts and church activities. My kids seemed content with one lesson each and several afternoons of TV and Xbox. Looking back at her childhood, clinical psychologist Valerie Hale, Ph.D., said she preferred participating in a lot of activities because she didn't want to be home alone while her mother worked. Yet today, in counseling children, she often recommends no more than one or two after-school activities a week, and she suggests less is more. While choosing a child's activities is certainly an individual choice, what guidelines do professionals suggest parents consider to avoid burnout and keep activity participation stress-free?
A child who is over scheduled may become irritable, have trouble sleeping, change his or her eating habits, or stop wanting to continue attending an activity.
"If there are disruptions in any of the above areas, parents can get clues that their child has too much going on," says Cheryl Wright, chair of the Child and Family Development Center at the University of Utah.
Clinical psychologist Valerie Hale, a Ph.D and member of the Utah Psychological Association, cites an "Atlantic Monthly" survey that studied children who were born between 1979 and 1982.
The survey considered these children as the first generation of children who had real "play dates" and a lot of structured time. In studying their lives, the survey determined that they were "not risk-takers and were very compliant," Hale said.
She adds that such children weren't as creative, needed a lot more structure and chose to schedule time to be with their friends as opposed to spontaneous "hanging out."
"As a parent, I wonder about all of these structured activities. I find it troubling that too many structured activities are scheduled after a structured day at school," Hale said. "Too, with schools adding increasing amounts of homework, sometimes the last thing a child needs is another structured task that requires more mental and emotional energy."
When a child says, "I want to quit," parents may ask themselves if they should allow the child to give up on a commitment.
"Like adults, kids should be allowed to say, 'I hate this,' or 'These lessons aren’t what I expected,'" she said. "If a child has made a short-term commitment to other people — such as playing on a basketball team one year and wants to quit mid-season, I would probably encourage him to finish the year and not sign up again. But if a 14-year-old child has played piano for four years and now wants to play trumpet, I wouldn't continue forcing him into something he's had time to decide he doesn't want to do."
Wright explains that time for reflection and time to just sit is very undervalued in our competitive, rushed society.
"We don't value just gearing down as much as we should," she said. "Letting children, particularly young children, play is the antidote to their stress. We need to value the time when children just play, entertain themselves or play with their friends."
She maintains that children need to learn how to manage and allot unscheduled time just as adults do — allowing them to have unscheduled time helps them develop this skill.
Hale feels that boredom is underrated, and can actually lead to creativity and inventiveness.
"With kids today, there's a sense of 'bring on the next act — I’m bored,'" she said, adding it may lead to the feeling that parents they have to stimulate the child.
She explains that taking time to decide what activity comes next helps the child determine his or her genuine interests.
"If a child has an activity every day, where is the opportunity to focus on an individual activity and explore the depth of it?" she said.
"Asking a child to help select his activities gives him the feeling of, 'I'm driving this bus — not my parents,'" said Hale, a member of the Utah Psychological Association. She said some parents may occasionally want their child to pursue an interest that is actually theirs and not the child's.
"There is a subset of parents who meet their own self-esteem needs through the accomplishment of their children and feel guilty if they see their child digging in the dirt with a stick," she said. "I would suggest parents listen to kids' opinions and not be frightened to hear what their real interests are."
"The most important aspect of development is emotional health, and no class is going to be better than family time, when the most important lessons will be learned," Wright says.
"Remember to enjoy your children, and remind yourself that parents who don't sit down and play games or basketball with their kids are the ones who will regret when their kids are out of the house."
List compiled by Carolyn Campbell for the Desert News