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Overscheduled kids: How much is too much?

Piano lessons, basketball practice, dance recitals, swim meets, chess club, football games, out-of-town baseball tournaments … these are all great activities that can contribute to a child living a healthy, active life. But how much is too much? And how harmful is too much?

The overscheduling of kids has been a heated topic over the years, with terms like “tiger mom,” “helicopter parent,” “mommy wars” and “free-range children” popping up to enflame debates on who’s a good parent and who isn’t. But like almost anything, it’s just not that simple.

Signs your kids are overscheduled

Each child, each family is different, so there’s no one gold standard to knowing if yours is too busy. But here are some signs you might want to watch for:

  • Because of all his commitments to extracurricular activities, your child is falling behind in school.
  • She complains about feeling tired, anxious, or even depressed.
  • There are more headaches and stomachaches caused by stress, missing meals, and not getting enough sleep.

Put another way, is your child actually enjoying all this activity? For the most part, it’s all still supposed to be just for fun at this age.

Unintended consequences

While as parents we might have our eyes on the prize of raising a multitalented, superstar human being who will be equipped to exceed in every possible aspect of life, having too much structure in a child’s day can have some serious unintended consequences.

Between school and constant activities, there’s not much time to spend with family or to have much of a social life. Yes, kids form friendships with other kids who are in the same activities as they are, but it’s good to have a wide range of friends with different interests. As for family time, wouldn’t it be nice to spend time together that didn’t involve driving to practice?

Beyond the mental and social risks, there are many physical health issues that can arise when a child, for instance, is throwing too many pitches or putting too many miles on their legs. Sports medicine professionals almost universally cite overuse injuries as among the most common in young athletes.

How to avoid overscheduling

Overscheduling can be something that creeps up on you. Before you know it, you’ve become a taxi service more than a parent. So here are some simple suggestions to keep things balanced:

  • Set ground rules: Agree to limiting sports to one per season, and make sure no more than two afternoons or evenings during the week are taken up by activities.
  • Make time for family: Even if it’s something as a dinner where everyone is at home at the same time – instead of using just the drive-thru or microwave — having time together when no one is on the run can be a breath of fresh air.
  • Priorities: School needs to come first. Make sure your child understands that if grades slip, then an activity must be dropped.
  • Say no sometimes: Just because your child says she wants to take on another activity, doesn’t mean you have to say yes, or that it’s not something that can be done next season.

In the end, we all want to give our kids the best childhood we can. Sometimes that involves showing them how to succeed in a structured environment, and other times it means letting them have the time and freedom to find their own way. No one has the perfect answer, but it’s when we work to find the right balance that we’re truly doing the best for them.