The time to prevent overscheduling kids is the start of the school year, says Samuel T. Gladding, chairman of the counseling department at Wake Forest University.
“Don’t wait until family members have signed up for more clubs, athletic teams and other activities than they can handle,” says Gladding, author of “Family Therapy: History, Theory and Practice” and president of the American Counseling Association.
He encourages families to seek a balance that allows them to enjoy the activities and goals they pursue with some time left over to relax.
“Work out a schedule that allows for curiosity, exploration, spontaneity and serendipity,” says the father of three sons in middle and high school.
“There is a temptation to overschedule because everything looks good: sports, arts, computers,” Gladding says. “It’s like being in a candy store and trying to choose.”
“Parents want their children to succeed,” Gladding says. “They want them to be intellectually bright, socially savvy, poised, polished, versatile and overall ‘above average.’”
Many parents think that in order for their children to excel, they must be in as many activities as possible and be exemplary in each, he says. Although some involvement is important, overdoing it can cause stress, frustration and ultimately low self-esteem for the child due to failure and fatigue.
Gladding has a rule of thumb for activities – “three’s a crowd.” He suggests helping children experiment with what they like doing, but encouraging them to select no more than two structured activities at any one time. “Once you schedule three activities for a child, you are probably asking for trouble, he says, “because a child cannot get more than minimally involved.”
Initially, it may be trial and error with activities unless a child has a passion for an area such as music. Gladding says it is important to let children know that they can choose different activities the next year if they try one thing and do not want to continue. He encourages parents to build on each child’s strengths, while trying to expose them to some new experiences.
Some breaks in structured activity are healthy.
“Like music, if there are no pauses, there is just sound,” he says.
Children need a certain amount of time with their families. “So, be sure to eat at least some meals together and plan some relaxing activities – like a bike ride or picnic – that the family can do together.”
He also recommends helping children develop interests that they can pursue by themselves. It may be reading, swimming, drawing, stamp collecting, or something else.
Like many group activities, these solitary activities build self-confidence and self-esteem, but offer more flexibility, he says.
Gladding also suggests closely monitoring children’s academic performance and their level of fatigue. Academics and sleep have to take priority over extracurricular commitments, he says.
The key is to find activities that are enriching and energizing whenever possible. Such activities will keep children enthused rather than drained, he adds.
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