Bruce Feiler is a writer who works at home. His latest book is “The Secrets of Happy Families.” This appeared in the New York Times on October 11, 2013.
The post reflects how highly educated, middle-class parents try to raise their children amid conflicting advice of “experts” on child rearing. Of course, disagreements over child rearing go back centuries. They mirror conflicts about what is a “good” school, how best to teach children and youth, and a host of value-driven questions that school reformers and “experts” have tried to answer then and now. When parents are torn over how best to raise their children, count on those conflicts and similar ones turning up in discussions about schools for middle-class children and in debates among reformers seeking policies that are best for schooling working class and poor students.
Now that the school year is under way, my wife and I are busy managing our children’s after-school schedules, mixing sports practices, music lessons, homework and play dates. It can be a complicated balancing act for our elementary-age daughters, as some days end up overstuffed, some logistically impossible, some wide open. Still, compared to when we were children, the opportunities they get to sample on a weekly basis is mind-blowing.
There’s only one problem: To absorb the conventional wisdom in parenting circles these days, what we’re doing to our children is cruel, overbearing and destructive to their long-term well-being. For years now, a consensus has been emerging that a subset of hard-driving, Ivy-longing parents is burdening their children with too many soccer tournaments, violin lessons and cooking classes. A small library of books has been published with names like “The Over-Scheduled Child,” “The Pressured Child,” “Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids” and so on.
In recent years there’s been some backlash to this view. With scholars releasing studies showing the benefits of extracurricular activities, whether paid for out of school budgets or parents’ pockets, a smattering of articles began to appear with names like “The Overscheduled Child Myth.” Still, the more common headline reads: “10 Signs Your Kid Is Too Busy.”
I found myself frustrated by this message. First, my wife and I work, so we don’t have the luxury of supervising our daughters’ free time around the clock. These activities, while sometimes costly, give us some peace of mind. Second, it’s easy to say children need to wander unsupervised in the neighborhood inventing their own activities, but we live in the 21st century, not a Beverly Cleary novel. Finally, when we do leave our kids on their own for long stretches, they end up wrestling on the floor, finding their way into a fight or demanding screen time.
As a work-at-home dad, this means I’m often dragged into the fray, making me long for even more lacrosse practices or, better yet, etiquette classes, where at least they’ll learn something and get to hang with friends. After-school activities as enrichment? Sometimes we view them as baby-sitting with a snack.
So what’s a confused parent to do? I reached out to some of the leading voices in the children-are-overburdened chorus and sought some advice.
Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist and the author of “The Pressured Child,” tried to put me at ease.
“As a general principle, there is a line between a highly enriched, interesting, growth-promoting childhood and an overscheduled childhood,” he said. “And nobody knows where that line is.”
The real problem, he said, lies with parents, especially highly successful ones who have a high degree of control over their own lives and who try to take similar control over their children’s lives. This leads them to make choices about after-school activities out of anxiety instead of interest in their child’s well-being.
“When I was growing up it was clean your plate because they’re starving in China,” he said. “Now it’s go practice your instrument because kids in China are learning violin.”
Especially with elementary- and middle-school children, he said, parents should be less fearful that their kids aren’t getting ahead and more worried about their overall quality of life.
“Is the child getting enough sleep?” he asked. “Does the child have enough time to do his or her homework?”
Alvin Rosenfeld, a clinical psychologist and an author of “The Over-Scheduled Child,” also distanced himself from the notion that extracurricular activities are bad.
“Enrichment activities are perfect,” he said. “They add a lot to kids’ lives. The problem is, we’ve lost the ability to balance them with down time, boring time.”
So where did I get this idea that play dates and sports practices are too stressful? Dr. Rosenfeld answered: “Where did I get misquoted so often? If you read everything I’ve written, the basic idea is that it’s great to have a computer, it’s great to have software, but if you overload a computer with software it breaks down.”
The antidote to that problem, he said, is to make sure children have enough time with no activities, parents have enough time with no work and the two sides come together to create activities of their own.
“Spend time with no goal in mind,” he said. “That will communicate to your child that you love them. And if a child feels loved, life can present them with hardships, but these setbacks will never defeat them.”
Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Columbia, has done extensive studies on the role of extracurricular activities in children’s lives. She stressed that the number of activities is not the problem.
“It’s good for kids to be scheduled,” she said. “It’s good for them to have musical activities, sports or other things organized and supervised by an adult.”
Her research has shown that advantages include having well-rounded experiences outside of academics, the opportunities to hone skills and working together with other children. And, since most school districts fail to provide adequate after-school programs, she said, “there’s the big deal of giving parents a break.”
Problems arise, Dr. Luthar said, when parents overscrutinize their children’s performance in these activities. “You don’t just play soccer for fun or play stickball in the cul-de-sac, you’re vying for the travel team by second grade,” she said. “The only place where I say stop is where the child starts to say his or her performance determines his or her self-worth: I am as I can perform.”
Polly Young-Eisendrath, a clinical psychologist and the author of “The Self-Esteem Trap,” was the one person I talked to who argued that too many activities may be a problem. She blamed a generation of parents who are too interested in the lives of their children, hanging on every word, coddling every need, communicating that parents are just audience members for their children’s accomplishments.
Before age 11 or 12, she said, when children begin to develop self-consciousness, activities risk distracting children from their natural development.
“Prior to then,” Dr. Young-Eisendrath said, “all these lessons and classes are about parents competing with other parents. Children really need that time to lie around, play more freely and have periods when they are side-by-side with their parents in the same room, being ‘alone together.’ ”
In the past, this was more possible, she said, “not just because there was a parent staying at home but because parents didn’t have this obsessive interest in children’s lives.”
Considering the differing views of the people I called, I was struck that at least one common theme emerged: I should worry less about the amount of time my children spent on activities and more about the messages I sent about those activities. So how do parents make sure they don’t cross the line?
First, know where the motivation is coming from, you or your child.
“Are you hearing laughter?” Dr. Thompson said. “Is the child giggling when you drop them off or pick them up? Or are they solemn and dragging their feet?”
Second, watch what you say. Dr. Luthar said parents should be in touch with their own feelings to ensure they are not communicating that exemplary performance is the only goal that matters. She warned against statements like, “Oops, you’re not starting again?” or “Oh, dear, you’re not chosen for all-county?”
“And if you’re having trouble identifying this tendency in yourself,” she said, “ask your spouse, your sibling or anybody you trust.”
Regardless of how many activities you schedule for your children, make sure you schedule time for yourself to be with them.
Dr. Rosenfeld said, “Your kids need to feel there is enough time when the computer is off, the cellphone is off and all you want to do is be together.”
It’s not just quality time, he said, it’s quantity, too.
“I always quote the Billy Joel song,” he said: No need for clever conversation, I’ll take you just the way you are.