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Fight the Pressure to Overschedule Your Children

10 expert tips to stop the frenzy

Published on: November 30, 2021

Happy family in the kitchen having fun and cooking together

From early morning to late evening, most families buzz with nonstop activity. This shifts into overdrive during the school year. Extracurricular sign-up opportunities abound. The impulse to engage your children in multiple endeavors becomes hard to resist. See 10 tips to stop the frenzy below.

Why are children overscheduled?

Children want to do what their friends do, and parents worry that someone else’s child may be gaining the edge by engaging in a particular activity. Parenting has become its own competitive sport. This seems to occur at younger and younger ages, with laudatory bumper stickers, test scores and college decisions as trophies. Kids soon learn that they are valued for what they do instead of the kind of people they are. Resist the temptation to encourage multiple activities because you think your child will benefit from a crammed schedule, or because neighbors and friends brag about their own or their children’s respective craziness.

With the increasingly competitive college application process, you and/or your child may wrongly assume that more in the way of activities is better. A packed résumé is not an advantage in the college admissions game: Colleges often limit the amount of space designated for extracurricular activities, and many college admissions counselors are advising prospective students to devote themselves fully to pursuits they genuinely love.

Fallout from overscheduling

When you say yes to overscheduling, you are at the same time saying no to your family. Overburdened families are more prone to arguing than their less frenetic counterparts. And they are less likely to spend time together. Twenty years ago, parents worked about nine fewer hours per week than those raising their families today — today’s parents have many more opportunities vying for their family’s available time.

There are more than 40 million children participating in organized competitive sports. Think of that time crunch! With practices, travel and games, schoolwork and other commitments, such as lessons in music or the arts, only moments remain for hanging out with family. And those occasions are often spent with parents and children electronically and individually entertaining themselves.

While there are many pluses to enjoyable sports and assorted extracurriculars, piling on commitments has an opposite, even negative, effect on family connection and on children’s health. In an analysis of five decades’ worth of research, Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a psychology professor at San Diego State University, found that today’s overburdened adolescents are affected to a degree once seen in child psychiatric patients.

According to a survey by Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions, 43 percent of 13- to 14-year-olds feel stressed every single day. Between the ages of 15 and 17, this number grows to 59 percent. And sleeplessness — usually blamed on late-night video game playing and social media — is more likely to be caused by stress. A Sleep in America poll reports that as many as two-thirds of children experience one or more sleep problems at least a few nights a week.

10 pointers to stop the frenzy

Extracurricular activity participation is voluntary, and thus completely under your (and your child’s) control. Here are a few tips to counter the pressure and fight the urge to overschedule your children:

  1. Embrace unstructured playtime, because it helps children develop creatively and learn how to fill time on their own.
  2. Fit in as many family dinners as possible, especially during the school year. It’s one of the rare times you are most likely to discover problems your child might be having at school or with friends.
  3. Learn to say no when your child begs to add another activity to his already crowded schedule.
  4. Examine the request together. Just like saying no to excessive commitments, good decision-making is a learned skill. Before your child signs up yet again, help them to figure out how many meetings or practices there will be per month. Will there be dues? Competitions? Fundraising requirements?
  5. Consider your family size and the ages of your other children. Is dragging your baby or toddler along doable without adding to your own stress and anxiety?
  6. Be a good example of stress management. Children learn how to manage stress by watching their parents. Do you find yourself reeling with stress, screaming at life’s frustrations instead of finding a resolution? Then you can’t expect your children to understand the proper way to react when they are overloaded and exhausted.
  7. Accept the fact that children get over disappointment far faster than adults. It’s safe to presume that your child will not be on a therapist’s couch 20 years from now blaming you for the missed opportunity to join a team. They’ll find something far more significant!
  8. Being less overwhelmed reduces the chances that you will lose your temper with your children, making both you and them miserable.
  9. Forget keeping up with the Joneses.
  10. Reserve time to build family ties and memories, which will become critical points of connection in later years.

This article was adapted from “The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say It and Mean It — and Stop People-Pleasing Forever.”

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