Kids and After-School Activities: Is It Too Much?

From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 14, 2000 -- Between school, sports, Scouts, and artistic and religious activities, your kids might be busier than you are. And even though it's a grind to shuttle them here and there, you take pride in the opportunities you can provide. You may even see your busy calendar as a badge of good parenting.

But do children actually benefit from such a demanding pace? Experts say what kids really need is more time with their families.

"I see burned-out and stressed-out kids every day," pediatric sports medicine specialist Eric Small, MD, tells WebMD. "Youth sports leagues have replaced the backyard pickup game, so kids have much less time to just hang out and relax," says Small, a clinical instructor at New York's Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) sports medicine committee.

The stakes get even higher for kids with a special talent. "Children with athletic promise may be recruited to year-round traveling leagues, often with four practices a week and away games on weekends," Small tells WebMD. But while kids are still growing, intense athletic training may injure them or even harm their development, he says. In fact, the AAP advises against specializing in any one particular sport until adolescence.

Most kids would really rather be playing in the backyard than competing with a team, says Stanley Greenspan, MD, a clinical professor of pediatric psychiatry at George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington. "Children of all ages want to spend more time with their parents," he says. "And most kids will tell you that they have more fun playing ball with Dad and a friend than in structured sports activities."

The problem is that parents have been misguided, Greenspan tells WebMD. "We've lost faith in family as a means to provide kids with what they need. And we're scheduling activities so tightly that there's not any room for playful exchanges with parents, siblings, and peers," he says.

Greenspan, who is also the author of Building Healthy Minds, offers some guidelines for planning your kids' activities:

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  • Make sure family comes before everything else.
  • Allow plenty of time for interaction with friends.
  • Schedule activities with the time that remains.
  • Select value-based activities, while giving kids a choice of what to do.

And by all means, try to preserve the dinner hour, the experts say.

The long-term effects of overscheduling aren't yet known, Bill Doherty, PhD, tells WebMD. "But we do know that kids who have dinner with their family frequently get better grades. On the other hand, fewer family dinners have now been linked with aggression, depression, sexual behavior, drug use, and suicide in teenagers.

"Providing activities for kids is a well-intentioned slippery slope, because all the hustle and bustle can diminish the quality of family life, especially family dinners and visits with grandparents," says Doherty, a professor of family social science and director of marriage and family therapy at the University of Minnesota.

Unfortunately, there's not a prescription for reclaiming family life. "Every family has unique needs, so you've got to figure out what works for you," Doherty says. "But it's a good idea to let children know that sometimes they have to make sacrifices for the good of the family," he advises.

Here's what some of Doherty's clients have done to get their lives back:

  • Limit each child to one sport per season, plus one other activity.
  • Reduce the number of children in the family who participate during any one sports season.
  • Begin making decisions now about next season or next year.
  • Enjoy a summer "sabbatical" from all outside activities.

Doherty's message, from his book Take Back Your Kids, has struck such a chord that one group of Minnesota parents is calling for an across-the-board slowdown for families.

The group, called Family Life 1st, "just began as a town meeting of parents, coaches, ministers, and Scout leaders" in the town of Wayzata, says organizer Carol Bergenstal, a mother of two teens. "Surprisingly, most of them have been receptive to our concerns."

But the group didn't stop there. "Now we're in the process of developing a seal of approval for organizations that respect the need for regular family dinners, outings, and vacations," Bergenstal tells WebMD. "And we've gotten dozens of calls from all over the country about how to start such an initiative."

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One Maryland mother has started a slowdown of her own. "After-school activities are important for the health and well-being of children, but they can create a lot of tension in families with two working parents," says Angela Mickalide, PhD, a pediatric public health expert from Kensington. "Our family life was becoming so fragmented that I decided to call a family meeting to set some priorities and make some choices."

Her 7- and 8-year-old soccer players opted out of choir and chose Scouting over a second sport, but they're planning to hang in there with piano lessons. "Andrew doesn't have the maturity and experience to understand completely, but Anna will enjoy having more time for creative pursuits like coloring," Mickalide tells WebMD.

For the remaining activities, Mickalide has had good success with a few ground rules:

  • Homework is completed from 3-5 p.m., before extracurricular activities begin.
  • Children are responsible for gathering their own equipment.
  • The family always eats dinner together afterward.

For more information, visit familylife1st.org.

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