It starts with the best of intentions. Your daughter excels at music, so you enroll her in piano lessons. The next year, she picks up the violin and joins the soccer team. She asks to join her friends in scouts, then wins a spot on the academic quiz team.
Family dinners become a thing of the past as you shuttle her from one activity to the next. Homework takes up the rest of the evening, leaving her little time to play or unwind. Mornings are frantic as she rushes to find homework, athletic gear, and sheet music before the school bus arrives.
You tell yourself it’s worth it to help her get into a good college. But no matter how much energy she has now, an overscheduled kid runs the risk of burnout by the time she’s ready for college.
“Sometimes we equate the number of activities with good parenting,” says Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, a University of New Hampshire psychologist who has authored books on parenting and home organization. “Colleges are looking for kids that are well-rounded, not manically overscheduled.”
The hectic pace is hard on parents, too. The pressure parents feel to maximize every opportunity for their children may leave moms and dads feeling inadequate and cause them to derive less satisfaction from parenting, the American Academy of Pediatrics has found.
By contrast, numerous studies have shown that families who eat dinner together report stronger relationships and better grades. According to a 2006 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, kids and teens who eat dinner with their families at least five times a week have a much lower risk of substance abuse.
Weighing the Options
If your family is overscheduled, you can ease some of the pressure by finding ways to simplify your daily routine, whether it’s cutting back on extracurricular activities or getting more organized at home.
First, think about your attitude toward your child’s involvement in activities. Do you feel pressured by your peers to meet a certain level of participation? Do you push your children because you don’t want them to miss out on opportunities you didn’t have, even if they aren’t interested? The AAP urges parents to evaluate which activities are appropriate based on a child’s needs, skills, and temperament and to preserve time for children to play and hang out with family members.
Parents should listen carefully to what their children want to do and let them follow their passions rather than of imposing other expectations, says Mimi Doe, author of Busy but Balanced: Practical and Inspirational Ways To Create a Calmer, Closer Family. “For some kids, this pressure to get involved is coming from their parents rather than their desire to try things out,” she says. “They just said they like the piano, and you’re picturing them at Carnegie Hall.”
Instead of thinking about getting an advantage for your children in the college admissions process, she advises parents to focus on creating a manageable family schedule. When considering each activity, think about the time, cost, and transportation involved as well as how it will affect you and your kids. Consider setting limits on the number of activities each child can participate in before the school year starts. Many families limit each child to three activities—one artistic, one athletic, and one social.
Doe encourages families to create more balanced lives based on their own values. If parents feel it’s important to eat dinner together a few nights a week, arrange the schedule to try to make it happen. It’s important for parents to set predictable times that they’re available to listen to their children, she adds, whether it’s taking a walk together after dinner or talking for a few minutes before the kids go to bed.
“It’s really critical that before the school year begins, families consciously craft the best schedule for them,” Doe says. “You want to be proactive, not reactive to what comes home in the backpack.”
The Simpler Life
As you cut down on outside activities, set aside dedicate time for the family to be together. Taking a few minutes to relax after getting home can lower everyone’s stress levels and help family members to reconnect after a busy day, Kendall-Tackett says: “A lot of times, people get home and immediately dive into meal preparation, and it tends to be one of the worst hours of the day.”
Streamlining household routines can also make time at home more relaxed, she continues. (See “The Morning Rush” below for ideas to make your morning easier.) You don’t have to reorganize your whole house or overhaul your whole life. Keep spaces that you use every day, like the kitchen counter or home office, free of clutter. Focus your efforts on cleaning the areas in your house where things tend to gather, such as at the bottom and top of staircases or on the dinner table. Keep things where you use them so you don’t have to search the house just to find a pair of scissors. If you have to spend time rummaging through drawers looking for frequently used items, clean out the junk.
Once you create a pocket of organization in your house, it’s likely to spread, Kendall-Tackett says. “The goal is not to be hyperorganized for the sake of it, but to make it easier.”
Even with the best of intentions, though, changing the family dynamic takes time. Don’t expect to meet every goal right off the bat, especially regarding home organization. Kendall-Tackett and Doe both urge parents to let go of the idea of being a perfect parent and resist feeling guilty if the house is less than immaculate.
“Give yourself permission to step off the fast track,” Doe says, “trusting you’re giving [your children] the best gift: being present in their lives without being exhausted.”
Your morning routine can have a huge effect on how you feel the rest of the day. Instead of getting out of bed earlier to do everything, family psychologist Kathleen Kendall-Tackett recommends trying the following tips to save time.
- After dinner, prep breakfast food and make lunches for the following day. Have your kids lay out their clothes before going to bed.
- Avoid last-minute surprises by asking your kids what items they will need for the following day’s activities. Have them gather everything together in the evening.
- Keep spare school supplies accessible and in a designated area.
- Set aside an area for each family member to place items they will take to work or school the next day. Have children check that they have everything the night before so they’re not looking for lost homework in the morning.
- Have healthy, self-serve food on hand for breakfast.
- Organize bathroom drawers and cabinets so you don’t have to search for the items you use every day.
Is Your Family Overscheduled?
Organized activities can help children gain skills and self-confidence, but too much structured activity can contribute to anxiety, stress, and depression in children and cause kids to become self-critical perfectionists, reports a 2006 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“You don’t get to know each other because there’s not time to just really be,” says family psychologist Kathleen Kendall-Tackett. “You’re just interacting between activities.”
Ask yourself these questions to help determine whether your family is overscheduled:
- Do your children enjoy their extracurricular activities? Do you enjoy them?
- What does the activity accomplish?
- Is it being done out of habit?
- Do you feel like your kids need to be in activities because everyone else is, too?
- Do your kids spend so much time in activities that you don’t know what else is going on in their lives?