Soccer games. Violin lessons. Play dates. Hodgepodge of high-school events. On weekday afternoons and evenings … and weekends.
So, how much is too much for kids and parents? What are the implications of being “crazy busy”? Is there an upside?
Wayne State University psychology professor Chris Trentacosta believes that there are potential problems with involving children and teenagers in too many extracurricular activities.
“I think the main danger to children and teens is that overscheduling may spread them too thin in how they spend their time, and overscheduling can also spread them too thin emotionally,” he says.
“Overscheduling could also be harmful to the teen’s relationship with parents and other family members,” Trentacosta says. “It takes valuable time away from home that could be spent on family dinners or other activities that could be enjoyed by all members of the family.”
Another casualty of having too many organized activities is the loss of downtime. “Research shows that children need unstructured play time in order to learn,” Trentacosta says. Various forms of free and imaginative play that children enjoy also help them develop valuable social skills as well as promote academic learning.
“However, providing kids with a range of opportunities is often a good thing, particularly when children are young and need exposure to a variety of activities in order to learn which activities they like best,” he adds.
Barbara Gagliotti, a history and religion teacher at Brookewood School for Girls in Kensington, Md., points out that overscheduling is not just a problem for our children.
“It’s a societal thing,” she says. “The entire society is geared to: The more you do, the fuller your life and the happier you’ll be — and, certainly, the kids have that idea.”
“The bar is set pretty high,” Gagliotti says. “It’s a lot of pressure, and it’s not really thought about. Some kids can do it, and others are struggling to keep up.”
A full schedule could serve a purpose, though. “If kids are pushed more, it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Gagliotti says. “In some instances, it might be better that they be kept busy instead of being couch potatoes.”
Gagliotti, who also leads a chapter of Gioventù Studentesca, an international Catholic youth organization, hasn’t seen much of a negative impact on her students’ schoolwork from their many activities, but she cautions that thought should go into the choice of activities.
“We have to help the kids come to an understanding of the question ‘What’s really going to fulfill me?’” Gagliotti says. “You have to stop and ask, ‘How does the faith inform my decision?’”
One concern of Gagliotti’s is that students not withdraw from life. “They want to try new things and discover where their talents are,” she says. “I don’t want them to back out of anything, as if Christ means living less.”
“Sometimes kids want to do something because their friends are doing it,” Gagliotti notes. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing if those friends are helping them grow [as followers of Christ].”
The personal growth of their children is what has kept Cindy Whitmer and her husband David in the car driving their two teenagers to activities in Atchison, Kan.
At one point, their daughter Laura was involved in student council, volleyball, basketball, violin, saxophone, Girl Scouts, softball, yearbook, track and church activities.
Laura’s younger brother plays the drums and the piano and is also involved in student council, football, basketball, baseball, track, Boy Scouts, soccer and church activities as well.
Both teens are straight-A students.
“We’ve said to both of them that we have the ability to let you try many things to discover what you like,” Cindy Whitmer says. “But we require them to be fully committed. No quitting midstream.”
“As a mother, there are times I wish they weren’t involved in so many things,” she admits. “But my being tired isn’t enough for me to put limits on their activities.”
As Laura has gotten older, Whitmer has seen her daughter begin to make conscious decisions about how she spends her time.
“I’m glad to see my daughter learning to manage her time and choices,” Whitmer said. “Balance is one of the great tricks of life.”
Whitmer echoed Gagliotti’s observation about American society: “American society is fast-paced and driven. There’s an intensity in our society.”
She remembers when Laura was 6 and was about to start playing the violin. “The Suzuki [method] teacher’s response was ‘Hurry up! It’s almost too late for her!’ That, to me, is America.”
Overall, Whitmer sees her children’s activities as more than a way to keep them busy and off the couch. “They’re learning so much more than a sport or a piece of music,” she says. “They’re learning persistence, being a team player, cooperation, leadership, character and how to lose. I want them to lose sometimes, so they learn they can pick themselves up and try again.”
Although the family is on the go much of the week, they had dinner together most nights until Justin began playing football.
But they continue to make an effort to do things as a family. “We have a family activity most weekends,” Whitmer said. And church on Sundays: “I think if people make it a priority, they can fit that into the puzzle.”
She also makes use of the drive time: “In the car, there’s an opportunity for quiet time or time to connect with each other.”
Time to connect with other family members and with God is a concern of Father Steve Hamilton, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Kingfisher, Okla.
“I’m not a sociologist or a psychologist, but, in my observations as a pastor, I think there’s, generally speaking, a danger or a problem in overscheduling,” Father Hamilton says. “The reason I say this is not because there aren’t good things to do, but as human beings, we’re not just physical but spiritual beings, and we need quiet time for reflection.”
“Too often, we’re filling a lot of space but not filling a fundamental emptiness, an emptiness only God can use,” he adds.
Father Hamilton, who also serves as the associate vocations director for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, believes that there is a strong temptation to do what seems most pressing first and leave God for later.
“Parents need to understand the value of silence and prayer in order to communicate that to their children,” he says. “We need to work hard to make time for God.”
“My suspicion is if we only start to pray before bed, we mean to pray, but it results in snoring,” Father Hamilton says.
“I worry for these kids,” he adds. “People have the impression that the soul will wait, but there will come a time when we can’t give it the solitude it needs. Some day, it will be too late. None of us are immune to that.”
The priest sees firsthand the effects of overscheduling on his teenage parishioners who are preparing for confirmation.
“I can tell you it’s a grand struggle to get the kids engaged in the two-year program to prepare for confirmation,” he says. “I get lots of excuses: football and other activities that conflict with confirmation class.
“At a certain point, I have to raise a flag. I don’t think the coaches ever hear, ‘I can’t come to this game or practice because I have to go to church.’ It’s a form of idolatry when someone says they can make room for all these things but not for Christ.”
When parents tell him that their child can’t miss a game or practice because he or she has a serious chance of getting some scholarship money for college, the priest’s response is: “That child has an eternal soul!”
Overall, proper balance is key. Encourage your children to run the good race, fight the good fight, play the good game — but help them keep their eyes on the real prize: “Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33).
Laurie Ghigliotti writes from Atchison, Kansas.