Balancing School, Activities and Downtime

Is Your Family Playing Beat the Clock?

Find the Delicate Balance of School, Activities and Downtime

By Amy Landsman

What with religious school for the kids twice a week, homework, team sports and the occasional ice skating or art class, the Kleeman family of Owings Mills is always on the run. As with so many other families, the Kleeman’s are trying to find the right balance of school, activities and downtime.
“I’m very aware of the whole over-scheduling thing. I think kids need downtime to do nothing, to read a book and just veg out,” notes Lisa Kleeman, mother of three girls. At the same time, looking ahead to the teen years, she doesn’t want her girls, Jessica, Emma and Erica, to have too much time on their hands.
“I think it’s important to keep teenagers, especially, busy,” says Kleeman. “It will keep them away from other things you don’t want them to do.”
Some families, such as the Kleemans, work hard to achieve balance. Others seem to have way too much on their plates.

Families get over-scheduled for various reasons, notes Dr. Lou Aymard, a child psychologist and director of Anne Arundel Community College’s Family Outreach Network. According to Aymard, some parents really are living out a dream through their child.
“Those kids are really over-scheduled because the parents are living vicariously,” notes Aymard. “Or [they are] trying to live some kind of dream vicariously.”
Other parents, Aymard believes, aren’t deliberately trying to over-schedule their families. They just don’t know how to say no to everything their kids want to do.
“Kids naturally want to be in Scouts or be altar boys or do Habitat for Humanity,” says Aymard.
Still other parents worry their children will fall behind socially or academically without a lot of extra-curricular activities.

But most middle class American families are already providing incredibly enriched environments for their kids. And going overboard, states Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, co-author of The Over-scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap (Griffin, 2001), isn’t doing anyone any favors.
“I think that young children will acquire language skills unless you lock them in a closet. It’s just hard-wired. They’ll acquire the skills, and they’ll acquire them at their pace,” believes Rosenfeld. “There’s no evidence that the kid who reads at 3 is going to get the highest SAT scores.”

Everyone’s Affected
Over-scheduling isn’t just harming the kids, adds Rosenfeld; it’s undermining adult relationships as well.
“We’re getting our family and our married lives so overloaded with kids’ activities that we forget how to be spouses… You have to cancel Saturday night every week for ice hockey practice. The only thing you ever talk about is schedules,” says Rosenfeld.
Even parents who try to limit their kids’ activities may find the demanding schedules of many sports undermining their best intentions.
One Owings Mills mom was astonished to find that the local recreation council expected her 8-year-old to show up for baseball three days a week. Other families complain that travel teams keep their entire families endlessly on the go.

Unless there’s a game and the team is counting on one of her girls, Kleeman makes homework a priority over sports. She’ll let the girls skip a practice if they have a lot of homework that night.
“Homework has to come first,” notes Kleeman.
And speaking of homework, Rosenfeld also believes that kids—and their parents—are burdened with too much of it.
“The amount of homework for fourth graders has tripled in the last 10 or 20 years. It’s not just the kids the schools feel entitled to give homework to. It’s the parents, too—you are assumed to be doing homework with the child,” he says.

Some parents worry that, if their kids aren’t involved in lots of activities, they’ll just flop down in front of the television or computer and stay there all day.
Rosenfeld maintains that that’s not such a federal offense.
“First of all, I don’t know that it’s so terrible sometimes. It depends on how the kids use the TV or computer,” he says. “It’s not as though I like all the passive programs, but to schedule every minute isn’t helping the kids.”
In a keynote address to the International Youth Sports Conference in Georgia last year, Rosenfeld notes, “We act as if a child being bored is a dreaded enemy. Parents become akin to cruise ship activities directors to avoid their kids being bored. I think that parenting is a higher calling!”

“Actually, in moderation, boredom can stimulate kids to think and create. America’s economic success is based on people—like David Packard, Bill Gates and, of course, Steven Spielberg—who daydreamed and tinkered with a vision of their own. Kids need some time to be alone,” he says.
Rosenfeld also notes in his address that many kids are sleep-deprived from participating in so many activities.

Make Time for Family
Aymard suggests regular family pow-wows to talk about everyone’s schedules. Families can get together to figure out how many activities the kids can handle at one time and what will simply have to wait.
Putting aside an opportunity for parents and kids to get together is important, he stresses, suggesting that it can be as short as 20 or 30 minutes and that families do it regularly. Families should sit down in a special place—with the TV off—and have the opportunity to just exchange issues.
Aymard also adds that truly over-scheduled and stressed-out families may even need professional intervention to help the parents learn to set boundaries.

More significant than activities to the future success of our kids, Rosenfeld believes, are the relationships they build in their lives. That’s why he is promoting a National Family Night for families to spend together.
“What’s going on in the country is damaging the very nature of families. We need to try to find a way to pull back from this kind of over-scheduling,” Rosenfeld says, adding, “It was an ancient wisdom to know you needed some down time.”
Kleeman says she already tries to keep at least one night a week free.
“Fridays,” she says. “I don’t like to do anything if we can avoid having an activity.”
In general, are families getting the message, that enough is enough already?
“It’s only increasing,” admits Rosenfeld. “It’s like trying to hold back the tide. It’s an evergreen topic, everybody’s for it and there’s always support. But nothing ever happens.” BC

Looking for additional information on improving family life at home? Check out the following websites:
Anne Arundel Community College’s Family Outreach Network, www.aacc.edu/familynet.

National Family Night, www.nationalfamilynight.org.

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