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:
1. Determine what is mandatory.
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.
2. Help your kids weigh their options.
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.
3. Create a family calendar that includes schoolwork, appointments and activities.
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.
4. Consider how much commitment an activity demands before signing up.
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.
5. Allow one extracurricular activity per day ...
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.
6. ... And when it comes to sports, focus on one at a time.
"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.
7. Keep a day sacred for family time.
"Allow your family time to be more spontaneous," Galeano says.
Some suggestions for family activities:
- Cook a meal or bake together
- Play a board game
- Work on a group craft project.
- Ride bikes
- Go for a hike
- Have a picnic in the park
- See a movie
- Go to a museum
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.
8. Let them be bored.
"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.
9. Stop comparing your child to others.
Looking at Instagram and Facebook pictures can create a type of unhealthy competition. Take a social media break.
10. Take the pressure off.
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.
Look for signs of activity overload
Signs that your kids are overscheduled include the following:
- They're tired. And so are you. Is it hard to get your child up in the morning? Or, are they doing homework past midnight because they have spent too much time on activities? "Also, consider if you are too tired or stressed from all the running around," Galeano says. "If so, you may need to simplify the schedule."
- They have frequent aches and pains. Sometimes kids develop headaches or stomach aches if they are overscheduled. If these occur once in awhile, it's probably normal; if they're happening daily or even a few times a week, talk to your pediatrician.
- Your car is your dining room. "Eat at home as a family — not in the car — with no TV, tablets or phones allowed," Galeano says. "If you eat in the car, you miss that bonding time, and you might be eating too much fast food."
- They are saying no to what should be fun. "It's a red flag if your child is doing so much they are turning down party invitations, and not making time to just hang out with their best friends anymore," Galeano says.
- They hide. "Sometimes kids spend a lot of time in the bathroom or their bedroom with the door closed, just to get away from all the demands," she says.
- You feel resentment. Parents need time — and money — to take care of themselves, too, Galeano says. "Sometimes we think, if I give 100 percent to my kids, I will get 100 percent in return. It doesn't work that way. You have to take care of your needs first to be healthy and rested enough to take care of your kids."
If your child shows signs of stress, including persistent headaches, stomachaches or constipation, call their pediatrician.