In the Sunday, October 13, 2013, "This Life" column of the New York Times, there was a great article written by Bruce Feiler called, "Monitoring the Giggle Index," which brought up some interesting things for parents to consider. How busy is good for children, and when is it too busy? Several children and teens I see in counseling are feeling stressed about just how many after school activities are on their plates.
Feiler reviews the literature on this topic, including "The Over-Scheduled Child," "The Pressured Child," and "Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids." He points out that in recent years there have been responses that perhaps the concept of stressed out and over-scheduled kids is either overstated or a myth. While there are lots of good things about keeping children and teens busy and channeled, I always like parents to check in with the kids from time to time about how it's going.
It could be that playing 2 sports or taking 8 dance classes a week worked last year, but maybe it's not working so well this year. When school pressure accelerates, there have been changes at home like a divorce, an activity that was positive becomes a negative, or a child or teen is anxious or depressed, it's probably time to revisit and discuss with them what the right mix would be now.
Feiler points out that, at times, it can be hard to find that fine line with enough activities so your child can develop skills and outside interests that boost self-confidence, and when it's overkill. When parents are driven and successful, they can project onto their children. Parents might be anxious themselves, oroverly well-intentioned about helping the kids get into college or play a professional sport.
Most children and teens need a balance with both enrichment activities and down time. Many introverted kids and teens have told me they need some quiet time after extroverting all day with people at school. It's good to be able to dialogue with your child about what they are enjoying, and what the right mix is.
One Jungian psychologist interviewed for the column, Polly Young-Eisendrath, who wrote "The Self-Esteem Trap," feels that some parents in our generation are too wrapped up in every detail of their children's lives. Young-Eisendrath feels that parents can be obsessive, and that time to just hang out in the same room together is also important. Down time, both individually and together as a family, with cell phones and electronics off, is very important.
What can we do to avoid mistakes with making the kids too busy? Pay attention to make sure the activity is motivated from your child's interest, and not yours. Is your child or teen happy or giggly when you drop them off or pick them up from activities? Do them seem exhausted and burned out? We also need to be careful about the words we choose as parents, and the impact they have on our children. Encourage teamwork, or participating in the play, rather than getting the key role or
maximum playing time. In the real adult life that we are preparing our children for, you don't always play quarterback or get the starring role.