Dear Dr Justin
My kids are in a lot of after-school activities. They swim and play a musical instrument each. Two of them do drama, and all three are in Saturday sport. My husband and I are arguing about how much is too much. It’s impacting on our time together as a family, and our budget. But the kids are tired and don’t seem to love much of what they’re doing even though they’ve chosen it. I want them to do less. My husband wants them to keep going and also wants to add maths tutoring. Is there any research to tell us what is right and wrong? When I was a kid, I played netball. That was it. I’d love some advice. My kids are 5, 7, and 10.
Dr Justin responds:
Countless blog articles and even books have been written about whether our children are overscheduled. Experts and parents fear that kids are doing too much. They dramatically stir up concern that parents’ expectations are too high. Alarmists are screaming that the sky is falling and children are being deprived of a childhood because they have too many adults telling them what to do and when to do it and how they could have done it better.
Raising talented children (or at least raising children who have opportunities to develop talents) has become a competitive sport among some parents too, trying to outdo others with the impressive accomplishments of their child.
So do we need to ease off on the throttle? Or should we be exposing our children to as much enrichment as they can take? (And yes, budget has got to play a part. Some people reading this are wishing they could afford to have this problem.)
Why structured activities can be better than free play
At the outset, let’s acknowledge that free play and unstructured time is important for our children’s wellbeing. Kids need free time. And silence. Research tells us that both are important for our children’s healthy development. They need the opportunity to play, explore, be curious and creative, and be still. The more we schedule activities for them, the less free time, down time, and free play they have time for.
But, for many of us, it’s not so realistic. This is particularly the case when children are younger. This is the case for several reasons:
First, life is no longer “Leave it to Beaver”. Parents are working outside the home, the streets aren’t nearly as child-friendly as they were, and expectations around what’s safe for children have shifted.
Second, with the screen tsunami that has swept society, any opportunity our children may have for some ‘down’ time or free play is all-too-often subsumed by those screens. The benefits we seek are easily trumped by the digital distractions that are ever present.
Third, we feel good when our children are being watched by somebody responsible and learning at the same time. They’re safe. And they’re developing. That’s two big boxes we’ve just ticked! We’re making their lives better by ensuring they can play the guitar or dance or swim. While it costs money, we feel reassured that they’re not wasting their lives doing nothing… or worse, staring at that screen.
Fourth, when I leave my children alone for that “free-range” style of play, there’s a chance that someone ends up hurting a sibling. They fight.
Finally, parents are increasingly focused on success (narrowly defined as being better at things than others). It feels like our children’s lives are being optimised when we keep them busy and focused on mastery.
From a practical and psychological perspective, having the children involved in extra-curricular activities is the answer. No screens. No fighting. Learning. Safe. Optimised.
Research also tells us there are other benefits to structured activities. Sports give the opportunity for social skills, academic improvement, physical health, psychological wellbeing, and more. Music and the arts improve children’s memory, academic capacity, social skills, and so on. All of these activities potentially enhance feelings of competence, build relationships, and promote wellbeing.
Drawing a line in the sand
So what’s the answer? Are our children overscheduled? Do we need to pull back from extra-curricular opportunities and give our children more space to be children with no commitments or pressures or growth demands? Or should we embrace the benefits and push harder for more opportunity?
There is a line that balances the competing demands of structure, growth, and enrichment with stress, financial costs, and protecting childhood. The problem is – none of us really knows where that line is until we’ve crossed it. And it changes for each child… and it changes as they mature and develop.
Getting the balance right
Rather than me telling you where to draw that line, here are some questions to ask yourself so that you can get the balance right for your children.
- Am I anxious about my child’s success in life or am I trying to improve my child’s wellbeing?In other words, am I doing this because I want my kids to get ahead? Or am I doing this because it enhances their quality of life? The answer could be “both”, but this probably means that it’s about success and your anxiety about whether they’ll be good enough. “I’m doing this for you” can be said with sincerity, but it can also be said to mask the possibility that we are really doing this for ourselves and our view of what we think our child needs, regardless of their feelings.One way to identify our motivation is to ask:
- Does your child feel like you care about the outcomes more than they do?If your child gets the sense that missing that goal on the soccer field, not being selected for the rep. team, or failing in the Eisteddfod means they’re not good enough, then you may want to check yourself. This is meant to be about them having fun and learning. It’s not about them being the best and beating the best. When performance becomes a way of demonstrating personal worth and determining self-esteem, we’ve missed the point. If we care more about it than they do, we may have stepped over the line.Sometimes we care more about the outcomes because we care more about them and their lives than they do. We really do believe that if they are a concert pianist, or a representative soccer player, or insert excellence in specific activity here that their lives will be better. Sometimes we may be right. But plenty of people can’t play an instrument and are still, surprisingly wonderful humans.
Sometimes our children are simply unmotivated. This is unfortunate when we know we are giving them an opportunity for enrichment that is genuinely valuable. But generally speaking, if they don’t care and you do, you may have pushed things further than is worthwhile.
This doesn’t mean we should simply let them quit, by the way. In some cases we might suggest that they’re “so close” to the top of the metaphorical hill they’re climbing that a little more persistence is going to be worth it. Our wisdom may be persuasive in these instances. Another example is the importance of finishing school. For most children, this needs to happen even if they run out of puff with 47 days to go until the end of Year 12. Sometimes we must push and persist.
- Are your kids excited to participate?When you take your child to their lessons or sports, are they laughing and smiling, and energised? Or are they complaining and dragging their feet? Their energy levels around this activity can be a useful indicator of whether it’s working or not. There will be times when what they are doing is hard. They will lose motivation if they can’t master something. Persistence is sometimes required. But you will know they want to be there by the degree to which you convince, cajole, and coerce your child to get involved.
There are some practical things to consider that may influence your decision as well. Does your child have time to play with friends? Are they getting enough sleep? Does your child get free play time? Do you make time to do nothing alone, and together? That is, are we comfortable being alone together?
Age as a factor
The research tells us that our children benefit greatly from structured, planned, formal activities. If we have the resources, these activities are great for our children’s development. But age may be a factor.
Before about age 10, participation in structured activities should be limited and all about fun. If they want to play sport, or be involved in music and drama, this should be encouraged. But participation should be about fun and mastery. Scores are irrelevant. Best and fairest awards are redundant. Competitiveness, exams, and progression are secondary to enjoyment, mastery, and relationships. The entire focus should be letting children be children.
Once the kids get to 10, let them choose. Give them options. Enrich their lives. It doesn’t matter so much how many activities they’re doing at this age. What matters is the messages you send about their participation in those activities, and the extent to which they enjoy them. The questions above can help you get the balance right.
Even more important is the message they receive from you about how important they are to you. And that doesn’t come from time in activities. It comes from time with you.
For more on this topic check out these great books and resources…