It’s the first full week back to school, the summer heat is starting to wane, and the madness has begun. Along with the homework and school responsibilities comes the extra-curricular activities galore: soccer, hockey, Tae Kwon Do, gymnastics, swim team, baseball, Girl Scouts, track team and more. If you’re a minivan driving mom (or even if you’re not!) chances are you’re shuttling your kids around to one or more of these activities every afternoon. But while there’s nothing wrong with clubs, sports and the like, some experts say we may be burning our kids out too young as they fall into the “busy trap” just like their folks. Are they right?
KidsHealth.org recently polled more than 800 boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 13. A whopping 90 percent of these kids admitted they were stressed because they were too busy. Another study found that kids’ free time has dropped by 12 percent in the past two decades, that playtime is down three hours a week, and that unstructured outdoor activities like hiking are down 50 percent. With kids being whisked from one activity to the next every day, experts say many of them have little time for homework, a healthy dinner or even a good nights’ sleep.
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Tim Kreider of the New York Times Opinionator writes, “I was a member of the latchkey generation and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon, time I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encyclopedia to making animated films … Those free hours became the model for how I wanted to live the rest of my life.” Kreider believes this generation’s kids have become too busy with organized activities to enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
Author Stacy Debroff writes, “When we were growing up and we were kicked outside to play, we went from house to house. Now kids are being driven from activity to activity and the kids next door aren’t around to play because they’re off at gymnastics or starting soccer leagues.”
Is this “busy trap” just an American thing? Not according to Graham Gorton, the headmaster of a private school in England. He says of kids’ extra-curricular activities, “It’s good to be involved in activities, but I think it’s really important to get the balance right. Children like their own company. They lose the capability to amuse themselves if everything is put in front of them in an organized, structured club type of way. Long gone, it seems, are those times when a whole weekend ahead with nothing planned was seen as a luxury and a perfect opportunity to spend time together and share those valuable and irreplaceable moments of childhood. Parents used to go to the local pool and teach their children how to swim. ... Now they enroll them in a club where someone else teaches them.”
As a mother of four, I know the “busy trap” all too well. I believe part of the reason we keep our kids so busy today is because there are simply so many choices. As my friend pointed out, back in the day, we signed up for whatever cheap rec program was offered in our city and called it good. There were no fancy club teams or gymnastics studios promising Olympic gold medals if participants worked hard enough. My brothers played Little League baseball, and I took piano lessons. That was it. In our (ample!) spare time, we waded in a drainage ditch behind our backyard and came home happy and covered in mud.
But I understand “those days” are long gone. Because the world is not as safe as we’d like it to be, we can’t let our children simply roam the neighborhood until it gets dark. And because many of us live in what I like to call the concrete jungle, we don’t have backyards with trees to climb and dirt to rub our feet in. This leaves children often stuck inside, left to play video games or watch too much TV.
But experts say this “busy trap” goes beyond just wanting our kids to succeed. Some argue that parents live vicariously through their children, that slapping four different club stickers on their SUV windows is a status symbol of sorts. If their son or daughter is involved in six different sports, they are important and successful, along with their children. Others say we simply don’t want to be left out. If we discover our friends’ kids have signed up for hockey, we might just find a way to squeeze it in between soccer practices, just so our child doesn’t miss out on gaining yet another skill. Is this unhealthy behavior?
Not always, says one mom blogger. Extra-curricular activities can help our kids gain self esteem, help them set goals, and encourage teamwork, time management, physical development and relationships. These are all life skills kids can take with them into the workplace and beyond someday. Nevertheless, she says, kids should stick to something they truly enjoy and feel good about.
As for me, I choose to keep it simple: All four of my kids play soccer, making me a bonafide soccer mom. I have been approached by several club teams, and while it is tempting to dive in, we made the choice for our family to stick with our local league for now. There will always be a time for more, but I want my kids to have time to ride their bikes around the cul-e-sac, play at the park and maybe sneak in an ice cream cone after dinner.
Moms—and dads—what do you think? How many activities are too many? Have we made our kids too busy these days, depriving them of them of a relaxed childhood? Or do you think it’s healthy to keep our kids on the go? Honesty, are parents living vicariously through their kids? We want to hear from you!