My middle school-aged daughter asked if she could have a classmate over after school one day. I told her sure and suggested a couple of days. My daughter responded, “She told me she can only come over on Tuesdays because that is her day off.”
My daughter proceeded to tell me that the girl was in three activities after school four days a week and on runs to two of them on Saturdays.
“She does field hockey, takes piano lessons and does karate,” my daughter says.
“Wow! When does she eat?” I jokingly ask, wondering how her parents afford all that.
“She says she eats a lot in the car. Her favorite is Taco Bell,” my daughter replies.
What Overscheduling Looks Like
This child could be considered overscheduled, says Dr. Velma Bacek, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Churchland Psychiatry Associates in Portsmouth, Virginia. By definition, an overscheduled child could have one activity outside of school that is five or six days a week for several hours.
Bacek says the typical parents of an overscheduled child are frequently middle class and married. “They feel if their child is not doing something it is problematic,” she says, adding, “Children, like adults, need some downtime. It is okay to be bored. Everyone needs some time just to walk in the park and look around.
“Boredom is okay because it allows children time to write or draw or even just make a birthday card,” Bacek says.
“When they are overscheduled, they don’t have a chance to be creative,” Bacek adds.
Thriving or Pleasing?
Michelle Pryon, a parent educator, says some children might thrive in this environment, but it could also be overwhelming. In addition to the stress of running from one activity to another, stress can be from the child not wanting to disappoint the parent.
“It depends on the child,” Pryon says. “Many times it can cause stress. The child may not want to tell their parents that they do not like a certain activity.”
Pryon believes that some parents feel they must provide a lot of opportunities for their child to succeed, but encourages parents to consider why they want their child in so many activities. “There are those [parents] that are living vicariously through their kids,” she says. “Maybe they always wanted to be the best swimmer.”
In addition, Bacek says a stress factor for parents is transporting their child each afternoon to the activities.
A Case for Active Childhood
Dr. James Paulson, a practicing clinical child and adolescent psychologist and associate professor at Old Dominion University, counters that some children might enjoy being busy.
Using himself as an example, Paulson says, “I manage a practice and manage being here at the university. I am really happy despite being very busy.”
Recent studies show that 40 to 50 percent of children have about four to five hours a week of after-school activities, while less than 6 percent are doing more than 20 hours a week, Paulson says.
Many children do well in school when involved in an activity after school, Paulson adds.
“What is most important is that children are doing an activity that they want not something the parent wants. Just like adults, children will do better at an activity they enjoy,” Paulson says.
However, Paulson says parents should be concerned if the child shows signs of anxiety and schoolwork suffers.
“Parents need to ask themselves, is there plenty of time for homework? Is the child getting enough sleep? Are other family members negatively affected? Is getting to the activities creating tension and stress? If there are problems with those, then it is time to reconsider the activities,” he says.