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As parents, we worry — that our kids are spending too much time in front of screens, that they need an interesting resume to get into college, that they are falling behind their peers whose parents post about winning trophies on social media.
To fight those fears, we schedule activities for our kids. Extracurriculars can enrich their lives, making them interesting and well rounded. But sometimes, it becomes too much.
"There is a line between encouraging your kids' interests and pushing them too far," says Xochil Galeano, MD, a pediatrician at Rush University Medical Center. "Sometimes kids would rather not participate in so many activities but feel, 'I have to do all these things to make mom and dad happy.' Then, no one is happy because everyone is overscheduled and anxious."
Other kids, however, might want to do it all: be on the traveling basketball team and star in the school play and take filmmaking classes and do gymnastics. In those cases, parents may need to manage their kids' expectations and enthusiasm.
Galeano offers these 10 tips to help parents hit the scheduling Goldilocks zone — just right:
Different families have different demands. In families headed by a single parent, camps often are used for summertime childcare. Other families must take care of an ailing grandma. Some kids must take special classes to develop an academic weakness.
"Things like that cannot be eliminated, so start there and build the rest of the schedule around these essentials," Galeano says.
Make a list of optional activities, then ask each child to pick their two favorites. "They should be only the activities they are genuinely interested in," she says.
If you have more than one child, try to coordinate lessons so you don't have too much going on in a given day and everyone has time to relax.
Keep this tool in the kitchen so everyone can easily see when a child — and the entire family — has too much on their plate. Assign each family member a different color so you can see each child's commitments at a glance.
Not all activities are created equal. While an art class might require an hour once a week, a travelling soccer team can have practice one or two evenings a week, plus weekend games on the road.
"This can be demanding, for both the family's time and finances," Galeano says.
If a traveling sport creates too much stress but your child loves to play, look for options that are less intense, such as once-a-week classes or teams through your local park district or YMCA.
Especially during the school year, that is all a child can handle, Galeano says.
If even a single daily activity starts affecting your child's grades, mood or sleep, try nixing weekday extracurriculars for a trimester or semester. Limit activities to weekends, and see if that helps to restore the balance.
"I don't recommend playing two sports in a season — that's too much pressure, physically and emotionally," Galeano says.
Conversely, though, children should not specialize — play one sport year-round without a break — until at least high school. Specialization in elementary or middle school can lead to both overuse injuries and emotional burnout.
Consider taking at least one season completely off. If your child wants to play soccer in the fall and baseball in the spring, try a non-sports activity during the winter and encourage your child to stay in competitive shape by jogging or swimming.
Summer is also a great time to rest, recharge and try other types of activities, especially since kids don't have to deal with the pressures of school. For three-sport athletes, summer may provide the only opportunity to take a significant break from the wear and tear.
"Allow your family time to be more spontaneous," Galeano says.
Some suggestions for family activities:
The important thing is to enjoy each other's company in a fun, nonstressful environment.
Don't force your kids to participate in an extracurricular they don't enjoy, even if they have a talent for it.
"Being bored can be good. Just playing without a goal in mind is important for their development," Galeano says. "It can spark the child's imagination, and teach them how to entertain themselves."
Keep crayons, markers, building blocks, Playdoh and jump ropes handy to encourage kids to pick them up on their own.
Looking at Instagram and Facebook pictures can create a type of unhealthy competition. Take a social media break.
Your children may be great baseball players or pianists, but what if they don't like playing baseball or taking piano lessons? Don't force your kids to participate in an extracurricular they don't enjoy, Galeano says, even if they have a talent for it.
If your child says they want to quit an activity, listen to the reasons why. They may only be participating because they fear you'll be angry if they quit. Reassure them that you aren't mad, that you support them, and that you'll help them find another activity that they love.
Signs that your kids are overscheduled include the following:
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