Overscheduled Child May Lead to a Bored Teen

If you think you're burned out from driving to all those after-school activities, take a good look at who's in the backseat.

5 min read

Many kids are more frenzied than ever because of overzealous parents who think the more activities a child does, the greater the likelihood of creating a trophy child: Scouts. Little League. Music lessons. Dance recitals. It's not uncommon to see a well-marked kitchen calendar of scheduled events that is just as crammed as many CEOs.

What happened to pickup games at the local Y? They may still be there, but what's packing them in more recently are yoga classes for children as young as 3. Not for fitness, mind you, but to help them chill out from their countless other organized activities.

"We're just responding to the needs of the community," says Lynette Lewis, family program director for the YMCA in Ridgewood, N.J. "We live in an area that's saturated with organized activities for children, and our residents take full advantage of that. We're finding that kids don't have enough down time to unwind ... just like their parents."

So in her suburban Manhattan burg, as well as the YMCA in Golden, Colo., and other facilities in between, kids from preschool to middle school are getting structured lessons in stress reduction -- both with and without their parents -- to better help them deal with their overstructured lives.

"Kids no longer go outside and hit the baseball. They have a game. They no longer sit and color, they go to art class," Lewis tells WebMD. "There is no doubt that they are spending their time in constructive activities that provide them with fun and useful skills. But they are spending a lot time in these activities and everything is so structured that everybody is stressed. Parents spend several days a week, sometimes every day, rushing from one after-school activity to another."

And notice who's sitting in the back of that minivan.

That might explain why in the past 20 years, the number of children who participate in organized youth sports has doubled -- yet teens who try out for their high school's sports team has reached an all-time low.

"By the time they reach high school, they are bored and burned out," says Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, former head of child psychiatry at Stanford University and author of The Over-Scheduled Child. "And it's because their parents have the well-meaning idea that the right way to parent is to overschedule them, with hopes of keeping them busy, active, and out of trouble."

But what happens? By age 13, statistics show, three of every four children who participated for several years in organized activities have permanently shelved their cleats, Scout uniforms, or music books. Often, Rosenfeld says, it's those who started these activities before first grade.

"We see it in early adolescence, kids are bored from these once-beloved activities because it's no longer fun for them; they've been playing for so long," says David Elkind, PhD, professor of child development at Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child.

"But they're also bored for another reason: They have grown up going from one structured activity to another that they have come to expect that they will be entertained and occupied all the time," he tells WebMD. "They have never learned to use their inner resources to keep themselves busy. Their parents often put them in these activities so they'll have fun and friends to play with. But it's good for growing children to sometimes be alone, so they can work out things for themselves. In fact, it's important."

Not only because it gives kids some breathing time from homework and their own busy schedules, but because it provides them with an even more important break -- from you, the well-meaning parent who only wants what is best for Junior.

"I'm a soccer coach, and I see games with 4- and 5-year-olds on the field," Rosenfeld tells WebMD. "There are two kids on the side picking dandelions, another kid milling about, three kids running up and down, and one kid who is really good, but kicking the ball at the wrong goal. And all the while, the parents are on the sidelines, yelling at them."

You call it cheering. He calls it pressure.

"I've had to pull parents off the field because they're acting as though their kids are in the World Series, not a children's game. They're so sure that coaching them on better ball control is a sure ticket to Harvard. They give their children Japanese lessons when no one at home speaks Japanese and have them learn the flute so they'll be more cultured.

"Good intentions aside, they think they need to always self-sacrifice their time and money for the better development of their child," says Rosenfeld. "But what they are doing in this is sending a message that their kids are in constant need of self-improvement, that they need to always need to learn new skills. And that's undermining the child's self-esteem."

There's no argument that these activities are helpful. Valuable life lessons and plenty of fun result from learning Chopsticks, building Pinewood Derby races, and playing team sports. The concern is that young children may be getting too much of a good thing -- especially before they should.

"Often, this overscheduling of structured activities is more the result of parental anxiety than for the needs of the child," Elkind tells WebMD. "Parents feel that because they're working or busy with their own hectic schedules, they need to keep their children occupied. But children don't have need to be in any organized activity before age 6 or 7, any earlier than that is really not age appropriate."

And when they reach elementary school? "My rule of thumb is there should be no more than three activities -- one sport, one social activity like Scouts, and one artistic endeavor like music lessons or art class," he says. "And they should only go for an hour or so to each one each week. It's really inappropriate for elementary school children to go to daily practices."

"Let them be kids, and you be the parent," says Rosenfeld. "Set limits on the number of scheduled activities they attend, and instead you play with them. Have family dinners instead of chauffeuring them to practices and lessons every day. Don't coach them on how to better throw a baseball, just throw it around. Don't always teach them on how to be better. Just let them be themselves."

That may be the real ticket to success after Harvard. Rosenfeld, who once served on its faculty, points to research that followed graduates into their 50s, to help determine which factors from their youth where most important in shaping their later success -- both in the workplace and overall lives.

"The one thing that stood out was whether or not they had at least one good relationship with someone when they were growing up -- someone who accepted them for the people they are and not whether they could hit the long homerun. That relationship didn't necessarily have to be with their parents. But if it was, all the better."