Avoid Burnout in After-School Activities
My kids could never catch up with my friend Margaret's children. Her kids were always enrolled in at least one music lesson and one art lesson, along with playing two sports and participating in Scouts and church activities. My kids seemed content with one lesson each and several afternoons of free time.
Looking back at her childhood, Dr. Valerie Hale says she preferred participating in many activities because she didn't want to be home alone while her mother worked. Yet as a clinical psychologist who counsels children, she often recommends no more than one or two after-school activities a week, and she suggests that less is more.
While choosing a child's activities is certainly an individual choice, professionals suggest the following guidelines to avoid burnout and keep activity participation stress-free.
Allow children to help choose their activities.
"Asking a child to help select his activities gives him the feeling of, 'I'm driving this bus, not my parents,'" Hale says, adding that parents may occasionally want their child to pursue an interest that is actually theirs rather than the child's. "There is a subset of parents who meet their own self-esteem needs through the accomplishment of their children, and feel guilty if they see their child digging in the dirt with a stick. I would suggest parents listen to kids' opinions and not be frightened to hear what their real interests are."
Cheryl Wright, associate professor and director of the Child and Family Development Center at the University of Utah, adds, "Parents can ask the child what plans he has for when he is not participating in an activity, and realize that a child can develop lifelong habits or a valuable hobby or enjoy reading in unscheduled time."
Clinical psychologist Nan Klein and her son decided that his activities would meet one of two criteria: they would either develop a skill he wanted to learn, such as playing the piano, or allow him to interact with other kids, such as sports and Scouts.
Hale thinks that boredom is underrated, and can actually lead to creativity and inventiveness. "With kids today, there's a sense of 'Bring on the next act — I'm bored,'" she says, which may lead to parents feeling like they have to stimulate the child. She explains that taking time to decide which activity comes next helps allow the child to determine his genuine interests. "If a child has an activity every day, where is the opportunity to focus on an individual activity and explore the depth of it?'" Hale asks.
Recognize the downside of structured time.
Hale cites an Atlantic Monthly survey that studied children who were born between 1979 and 1982. The survey considered these children as the first generation of kids who had real "play dates" and lots of structured time.
Studying these children's lives in May 2001, the survey determined that they were "not risk-takers and were very compliant," Hale says. She adds that such children weren't as creative, needed a lot of structure, and chose to schedule time to be with their friends as opposed to spontaneous "hanging out."
"As a parent, I wonder about all of these structured activities. I find it troubling that too many structured activities are scheduled after a structured day at school," Hale says. "Too, with schools adding increasing amounts of homework, sometimes the last thing a child needs is another structured task that requires more mental and emotional energy."
Remember that leisure time is valuable time.
Wright explains that time for reflection and time to just sit is undervalued in our competitive, rushed society. "We don't value just gearing down as much as we should," she says. "Letting children, particularly young children, play is the antidote to their stress. We need to value the time when children just play, entertain
themselves or play with their friends." She adds that children need to learn how to manage and allot unscheduled time just as adults do. Allowing them to have unscheduled time helps them develop this skill.
Watch for physical signs of burnout.
A child who is overscheduled with too many activities may become irritable, have trouble sleeping, change his eating habits and stop wanting to continue attending an activity, Wright says. "If there are disruptions in any of the above areas, parents can get clues that their child has too much going on."
Allow activities to end.
When a child says, "I want to quit," parents may ask themselves if they should allow the child to give up on a commitment, Hale says. "But like adults, kids should be allowed to say, 'I hate this,' or 'These lessons aren't what I expected," she adds. "If a child has made a short-term commitment to other people — such as playing on a basketball team one year — and wants to quit mid-season, I would probably encourage him to finish the year and not sign up again," Hale says. "But if a 14-year-old child has played piano for four years and now wants to play trumpet, I wouldn't continue forcing him into something he's had time to decide he doesn't want to do."
Recognize family time is important.
Wright says that the most important times that children are going to spend are quality times with their parents and their families. "The most important aspect of development is emotional health, and no class is going to be better than family time, when the most important lessons will be learned," she says. "Remember to enjoy your children, and remind yourself that parents who don't sit down and play games or basketball with their kids are the ones who will regret when their kids are out of the house." Wright says that many parents who look back say they would spend more time just listening and asking children their opinions.
"Family activities, like fishing and playing basketball, are a great way to get to know your child better, and that's when they open up and start talking," Wright says.
Carolyn Campbell frequently writes about family life.