The school year has begun, fall is almost here, whistles are blowing on football and soccer fields, which can mean only one thing. Parents are whining about the children being overscheduled!
Families are seemingly on the go all the time, every day, every week. Convoys of vans, Outbacks and CR-Vs shuttle children from soccer practice to piano lessons to Girl Scouts meetings to church groups and back again. At my daughter’s soccer games, parents pull out their smartphones to show the schedule spreadsheet for all their children’s various practices, games and meetings. Their family schedules are so packed, it stresses ME out. And I only have one child.
Barrels of ink and millions of digital words have been spilled into books, articles and parenting blogs about the problems faced by overscheduled children, who are too busy, too stressed and too exhausted. But you know who doesn’t get talked about very much? The poor underscheduled children. They exist, too. And some research has shown they might have more problems down the road to adulthood than the ballyhooed overscheduled children.
I found scant recent research on the topic, but a 2008 study by professors from Yale, the University of Texas and the University of Michigan determined that “few children could be described as ‘over-committed’ ” and that 40% of children participated in no extracurricular activities at all. No ball teams, school clubs, band performances, theater camps — nothing.
With the proliferation of mobile technology and other digital distractions in the past decade, combined with the widely reported dramatic drop-off in sports participation nationwide, it seems plausible that the percentage of children who don’t participate in any activities has increased since the study was done.
One summary of the study called overscheduling “a myth” and “a class-based worry,” meaning that it’s mostly a problem for families who can afford to be burdened with packed schedules. Sports leagues, equipment, musical instruments and club dues can be expensive, and, in some cases, prohibitively so for lower-income families. Those children suffer by not participating — by being underscheduled, as it were. (A synopsis of the 2008 study can be read online at bit.ly/2mfhzB4.)
Multiple studies have shown the benefits of group activities for children. Kids who join a team or a club have higher self-esteem, do better in school, are more physically fit, develop strong social skills and enjoy a host of other advantages from being involved in activities. The children who don’t participate have higher rates of poor academic performance, obesity, dropping out of school and even crime. No, not every child who doesn’t play a sport becomes a criminal, and not every child who joins a science club becomes a valedictorian. But the odds of having a healthy, productive adulthood seem to favor those who participate in something as youths.
Look, we all just need to do what’s right for our families. I have friends who spend their entire weekends at soccer tournaments, and they absolutely love it. The games are part of who their family is. My family likes to have its down time whenever possible. Sometimes we just want to read on the couch or binge-watch “The Avengers” movies. You get to choose your own family schedule. If your family is exhausted, cut back. If you thrive by being on the go, then by all means, sign up for that family embroidery class.
Some of the happiest times of my youth were when I was playing baseball and acting in a school play the same semester. I went from baseball practice to rehearsals, which ran late into the night. I took the stage for afternoon play performances, then ran to the baseball field after the curtain fell. Was I overscheduled? Probably. But I have never looked back and said, “Boy, am I sorry that I played baseball” or “I wish I had never been in that play.”