Too much too young? Are we over-stimulating our children?
How important are sports and extracurricular activities for socialising and exercise?
Soccer training? Yes I can fit in a half-hour session on Monday . . . Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Whatever happened to the weekend? The hassled parents who seem to spend all their time off being chauffeurs and cheerleaders, ferrying various over-scheduled offspring to a myriad of mind-boggling activities that demand serious commitment, wondering what happened to their own lives, often ask this question.
Weekends used to be the time a family spent together, relaxing after a hard week of school and work. Now it can be a fraught firefight to manage a chaotic calendar of activities.
Over-activating our children has become a much-maligned problem, with concerns that they are ricocheting from one activity to another without enough downtime. Amid this criticism, however, are we missing the benefit of allowing children to experiment and experience a variety of activities?
At my children’s primary school alone, there is basketball, yoga, French, art, cheerleading and Irish dancing on offer, to name but a few extracurricular activities.
The popularity of GAA clubs and other sports for girls and boys is visible in our parks and sports grounds every weekend, and the phenomenal rise in popularity of gymnastics and stage schools shows a strong appetite for learning skills not taught in school.
The pressure to partake can come from parents and children alike. Many kids drive the schedule because they have a severe case of FOMO (fear of missing out). Or maybe it is the parents who feel they have to constantly entertain their children because of guilt or competitive pressure from other parents.
Deciding on the balance of activities can be a fraught experience, but not finding that balance can leave everyone physically and emotionally exhausted, and family time scheduled out of the calendar.
“We’ve heard from teenagers who barely have 10 unscheduled minutes in a day between school, homework, revision and activities,” says Naoise Kavanagh, communications manager of Reachout.com, the online mental health resource for young people and parents.
Often the small amounts of time young people do have is taken up with screen activities, in which they are still “on” with their peers.
Reachout recently conducted an online survey on mental health; more than 2,500 young people aged between 15 and 19 responded. The top cause of stress was exams, followed by the pressures of school, body image and social media.
“The most important thing you can do is decide as a family what is the best balance,” says Kavanagh. “It’s important to build in pyjama days and downtime, even if they also have to be scheduled in.”
Without much forethought, we have moved from a time when children were left to their own devices to now being left to play with devices and activities, which means that proper downtime is limited. Like most aspects of parenting, finding a balance is key.
While over-scheduling can be harmful, there are also enormous benefits to involving children in activities outside of school. They encourage and teach social skills and are opportunities for play and exercise while learning sportsmanship, self-discipline and conflict resolution.
The key is to keep them fun and ensure that the kids – and their parents – aren’t overwhelmed.
“If school isn’t a positive experience for children, and for many it is not, then forming connections outside of that sphere is really important for building confidence and self-esteem,” says Kavanagh.
However, “you can’t do everything. Everyone, especially children and teenagers, needs time to process their day and their feelings.”
Reachout’s experience with young people has shown that they often appreciate set boundaries. And while children may fight to have more screen or activity time, often will often admit to being relieved when it is curbed. What they want, and what they need, might not always be the same thing.
As parents, it seems we have to question whether the obsession with constant distractions is down to our own anxieties.
“The main thing I would question when deciding on an activity is, what is its function?” says Sean O’Connell, a counselling psychologist who works with children. “If you’re a parent, ask why are you encouraging this – for peer support, exercise or as a useful babysitting tool?”
Allowing family time such as meals to be curbed at the expense of individual activities can be damaging. The key is to schedule hobbies and sports in moderation and choose activities with a child’s age, temperament, interests and abilities in mind. Then it’s all about setting reasonable limits on extracurricular activities and making them more enjoyable for all.
“What it really just boils down to is if the child enjoys it, but you can see where the fun becomes pressure,” Dr O’Connell says. “Children learn from parents, so it is so important for parents to foster the idea that doing nothing occasionally is a good thing.
“That’s not to knock hobbies and sports, but to get down to the child’s level and ask why it is the child seeking it out. Is it because everyone else is doing it, or because they enjoy it? Always ask: ‘What’s the function of this?’”
According to the psychologist, participating in activities should be child-led, not parent-driven, but it is entirely up to parents to set boundaries. “It’s important that children aren’t taught that everything is accessible and that all your time needs to be filled.”
Kavanagh agrees. “Boring as it sounds, moderation is the best way forward. Including children and young people in the family decision-making process is key to making sure they have a say, but that they also understand there might be bigger priorities at play.”
Finding the balance between what activities children want to do alongside individual and family needs can be tricky, but working it out together will allow everyone in the family to take a breath in the midst of the weekly calendar.
Five tips to avoid over-scheduling
- Take a moment and think about your child’s life. If it is too hectic, decide together where you might cut back.
- Work together to prioritise needs and ensure there is enough downtime.
- Plan in advance how to utilise time taken up with activities; share drops-offs and pick-ups with other parents.
- Model downtime and family time as an essential part of the week.
- Replace some set activities with family or playtime, such as walking or cycling together, or playing games.