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The Great Parenting Debates

The Overscheduling Myth

Why do we love to criticize other parents for overscheduling their kids?

Maybe it’s a way to justify the choices that you’ve made. “You’ve decided this isn’t your lifestyle,” says sociologist Sandra Hofferth, “and rejected those of other people.”

There’s probably more criticism of overscheduling in America today than there are harried kids: according to Hofferth’s research, overscheduling is a myth.

The University of Maryland sociologist and her colleagues studied 331 nine- to 12-year-olds and found that highly-scheduled kids – with three or more activities, or four hours of activities, over two days – were not stressed-out. Nor did they have poor self-esteem.

The 331 were picked from a national data base of 3600 children to form a nationally representative sample. About a quarter of the kids were highly scheduled, 58% had a few activities, and 17% had none.

The kids we should really worry about, found the study, are those with no activities. That 17% of kids tended to have low self-esteem and were most likely to be “depressed, anxious, alienated, and fearful,” says Hofferth.

The more highly-educated their mothers and the higher family income, the busier children tended to be. But even kids from low-income families had access to free or low-cost activities in school, religious institutions, or the community.

Hofferth’s team also interviewed a smaller group of kids at length to make sure they hadn’t missed anything. Those children with lots of activities were “perfectly happy,” they found. A few complained they got tired. And some had complained they didn’t want to go to an activity, so the parents had cut back, often from two sports to one. Many of the parents had taken steps to limit their own stress, like cutting their work back to part –time, forgoing promotions, or getting help from friends and family.

Kids do get stressed out, however, when parents pressure them to achieve, or don’t seem to care about what they do, found Columbia University psychologist Suniya Luthar. Extracurricular activities didn’t bother a group of suburban eighth graders she studied, but damage does occur , she writes, “when children feel that their failures render them unworthy in their parents’ eyes or when they believe that their parents" don't care about their activities. In other words, activities don’t stress kids out, but parental criticism or lack of involvement does.

And what about time to play, dream, create ….relax? Do our kids lack free time? Are they over-dependent robots who can’t invent their own games? That may be, but activities aren’t the culprit. When you subtract time for school, sleep and personal care, American nine-to 12-year-olds average 49 hours week of leisure time. So even if they're spending as much as 20 hours in activities, which not many do, that still leaves 29 hours. Of course, many kids spend a lot of that watching TV.

Hofferth’s study follows another by Yale University psychologist Joseph L. Mahoney who after reviewing many studies – including a survey of almost 3000 five- to eighteen- year-old American children -- found that the more kids participate in activities, the better their well-being. Even the tiny percentage of kids who are busy 20 hours a week are psychologically healthier than those who don’t have activities.

So why all the finger-pointing at our harried neighbors? We get “a sense of calm and contentment,” says Hofferth, from believing that we’re busy -- but not ‘overdoing’ it” like those other parents!

Criticism, by validating our own choices, gives us a sense of control – and as we point out in Pressured Parents Stressed-out Kids, everyone likes that feeling of control. We like to feel autonomous, that we're, doing something because we want to do it not because we have to do it.

I’d add that we criticize others most vehemently when we see a little bit of ourselves in them. That’s why Hamlet’s mother (who’d remarried pronto) said, “The lady doth protest too much” when she another widow insisting she’d never remarry. Gertrude knew the score: declaring stridently we’d never take an action often shows that somewhere deep down we want to do just that.

Since we love to see our kids acquire skills and to shine, we recognize our desire to sign them up for more and more activities. So criticizing others for doing so is a way to pat ourselves on the back for reining those desires in a bit for our kids’ sake – and for our own. That's because ferrying a passel of kids endlessly to activities can create a harried --even an overscheduled --parent.
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