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Bring It On

"Our kids are over-scheduled!" is a major worry and rallying cry for parents today. But is it really just a suburban legend?

(Photo by Joel Benjamin)

It’s a topic of discussion among school psychologists, professors, popular writers, and – most important – the people behind the wheels of the millions of minivans and SUVs whisking children from sports to music lessons and back in time for homework. The conventional wisdom, if such a misty concept can ever be useful, seems to be that American kids are way over-scheduled; under the thumb of parents with an eye on college, they are forced to work like corporate lawyers.

And that’s not all. "Parents are strained, too," says Erin Reilly, a Wellesley mother of a 10-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy. "It can get to be a rat race," says Peggy Antenucci, a Madison, Connecticut, mother of three who sees a lot of stress in a lot of families she knows and tries hard to keep her kids from living a too-structured life. Jennifer Eisele, another mother of three in Madison, agrees. "It’s just so easy to get caught up in that hamster wheel," she says, deploying her own busy-rodent metaphor.

A study published in "Social Policy Report" last fall, however, differed significantly from the conventional wisdom. It confounds the notion that children are too busy, despite what many adults think they see. For their research, a team of three professors led by Joseph L. Mahoney, an associate professor of psychology at Yale, took a close look at several preexisting studies of time-use data and a wide range of developmental indicators. They found that most kids ages 5 to 18 are busy simply because they want to do a lot of different things, not because their parents force them to. "Enjoyment," for instance, was listed over trying to get into college as a primary reason for joining a team or club.

The study also found that kids are actually spending less time on extracurricular activities than word on the suburban street seems to have it, with the average school-age child participating in only about five hours of organized activities per week and an astonishing 40 percent participating in none at all. The study’s authors confirmed links between participation in organized activities and indicators of a well-adjusted child. And even the crazy-busy kids, the 3 to 6 percent who averaged 20 hours a week or more in organized activities, were no worse off – and sometimes better off – than the kids who did nothing at all. Which makes a parent like me wonder: Could "downtime" be overrated? Has culture over-hyped the busy kid?

"Baloney. Nonsense," says Alvin Rosenfeld, Greenwich, Connecticut-based coauthor of The Over-Scheduled Child. "You can come up with any statistical analysis that you want. But I challenge you to go to any upper-middle-class neighborhood and ask 20 moms and tell me I’m wrong. Ask any hockey parent."

I play hockey myself, but my two kids do not – yet. But after talking to experts who could convincingly argue for and against the benefits of being busy, I went on a quest to get the straight story from parents. In my unscientific survey – I talked to six families – most of the parents seemed keenly conscious of balancing their kids’ activities and free time, but most said that schedules ran off with them anyway. With one exception, they were all striving against being an over-scheduling, born-to-drive-a-minivan hyper-parent.

"I’m big on unstructured time," says Reilly. "My kids aren’t booked all summer." Her son, for example, would probably like to play league baseball year-round, but she discourages it. "Hey, I teach yoga. You’ve got to be able to feel good about doing nothing."

"Me, I’m like the parent of benign neglect," says Antenucci. "But we’re doing more as they get older. Sometimes I feel guilty that they should be doing more, and other times I’m glad I’ve a little bit kept them out of the fray."

Eisele says: "We’re getting so caught up in a fast-paced society, but, for me, my ultimate weekend is keeping my kids home. Their play is their work. I like them to spend time picking dandelions or catching fireflies."

All of the parents I talked to seemed to know other children who, as Eisele puts it, are so busy that "I get tired just watching them."

Yet even these dialed-back moms felt as if they and their families were too busy. "My middle daughter is very overloaded right now, with piano and riding," says Eisele of her 14-year-old. "And she also plays the French horn." Her eldest girl, who is 17, plays sports – lacrosse, ice hockey, and figure skating – all year-round. "We’ve got to pull something off our plate," Eisele says. Her 13-year-old daughter already has: She bowed out of piano lessons but stuck with horseback riding.

They all suggest there’s a wealth of opportunity – just so many interesting things for kids to do – that’s coupled with a social matrix that sucks you right in, no matter how un-busy you want to be. It’s not that these mothers were nuts about sports, it was more that their children wanted to join teams because all of their friends were playing, too. Or they just thought it would be fun to take, say, tae-kwon-do and the lute, which is in line with the study finding that many busy kids are busy because they like it that way.

As if to underscore the conventional wisdom, though, the only mother who seemed to be a genuine over-scheduler asked me not to use her name. A Wellesley mother of three – and the hockey parent whom Alvin Rosenfeld sent me to find – seemed to understand that society turns a judgmental eye on the hyper-parent, but she defended her children’s activities as necessary to keep them competitive, particularly in sports. For her, it’s almost a necessary evil. "If they don’t start at a young age, they miss the boat," she says. "It’s really difficult to start a sport at 13. That’s just the way it is. I know parents who didn’t get their kids involved in sports, and now they regret it. They’re left out. My oldest is playing hockey in high school right now, and it’s great, because he’s at a new school, but he’s already got a lot of friends."

The night before we spoke, her daughter had come home from a game late and was working on her math homework until 10. "They don’t spend a lot of time in front of the television," she says, adding, "Keeping kids busy isn’t such a bad thing." Hers, she says, like it that way.