Many kids are more frenzied than ever because of overzealous parents who think the more activities a child does, the greater the likelihood of creating a trophy child: Scouts. Little League. Music lessons. Dance recitals. It’s not uncommon to see a well-marked kitchen calendar of scheduled events that is just as crammed as many CEOs.
What happened to pickup games at the local Y? They may still be there, but what’s packing them in more recently are child development at Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child.
“But they’re also bored for another reason: They have grown up going from one structured activity to another that they have come to expect that they will be entertained and occupied all the time,” he tells WebMD. “They have never learned to use their inner resources to keep themselves busy. Their parents often put them in these activities so they’ll have fun and friends to play with. But it’s good for growing children to sometimes be alone, so they can work out things for themselves. In fact, it’s important.”
Not only because it gives kids some breathing time from homework and their own busy schedules, but because it provides them with an even more important break — from you, the well-meaning parent who only wants what is best for Junior.
“I’m a soccer coach, and I see games with 4- and 5-year-olds on the field,” Rosenfeld tells WebMD. “There are two kids on the side picking dandelions, another kid milling about, three kids running up and down, and one kid who is really good, but kicking the ball at the wrong goal. And all the while, the parents are on the sidelines, yelling at them.”
You call it cheering. He calls it pressure.
“I’ve had to pull parents off the field because they’re acting as though their kids are in the World Series, not a children’s game. They’re so sure that coaching them on better ball control is a sure ticket to Harvard. They give their children Japanese lessons when no one at home speaks Japanese and have them learn the flute so they’ll be more cultured.
“Good intentions aside, they think they need to always self-sacrifice their time and money for the better development of their child,” says Rosenfeld. “But what they are doing in this is sending a message that their kids are in constant need of self-improvement, that they need to always need to learn new skills. And that’s undermining the child’s self-esteem.”
There’s no argument that these activities are helpful. Valuable life lessons and plenty of fun result from learning Chopsticks, building Pinewood Derby races, and playing team sports. The concern is that young children may be getting too much of a good thing — especially before they should.
“Often, this overscheduling of structured activities is more the result of parental anxiety than for the needs of the child,” Elkind tells WebMD. “Parents feel that because they’re working or busy with their own hectic schedules, they need to keep their children occupied. But children don’t have need to be in any organized activity before age 6 or 7, any earlier than that is really not age appropriate.”
And when they reach elementary school? “My rule of thumb is there should be no more than three activities — one sport, one social activity like Scouts, and one artistic endeavor like music lessons or art class,” he says. “And they should only go for an hour or so to each one each week. It’s really inappropriate for elementary school children to go to daily practices.”
Better Use of “Free” Time
“Let them be kids, and you be the parent,” says Rosenfeld. “Set limits on the number of scheduled activities they attend, and instead you play with them. Have family dinners instead of chauffeuring them to practices and lessons every day. Don’t coach them on how to better throw a baseball, just throw it around. Don’t always teach them on how to be better. Just let them be themselves.”
That may be the real ticket to success after Harvard. Rosenfeld, who once served on its faculty, points to research that followed graduates into their 50s, to help determine which factors from their youth where most important in shaping their later success — both in the workplace and overall lives.
“The one thing that stood out was whether or not they had at least one good relationship with someone when they were growing up — someone who accepted them for the people they are and not whether they could hit the long homerun. That relationship didn’t necessarily have to be with their parents. But if it was, all the better.”