Nov 21, 2009

Is Your Tween Scheduled or Over-Scheduled?

The vision of a super busy person isn’t a new concept; it’s certainly familiar to all of us. In fact, it can sometimes be perceived as a badge of honor. Perhaps it’s because the more we’re involved in, the more we believe it says about our own drive and achievement orientation, right? Why should we expect our preteens to march to the same drum? Maybe it’s part of the picture that focuses on keeping our tweens busy while we’re occupied or making sure our kids aren’t, gasp, bored. Or, maybe it’s a drive to push our kids to be the best they can be. Or, maybe we want to give our children what we didn’t have access to when we were their age. Or…maybe we just haven’t paused our own lives long enough to really think about it. Our guess is that it’s some combination of the above.

We’re All Busy!

The parallels with adult life are apparent. Compared with 1960, the average American family is working 160 hours more each year (that’s an additional month of average work weeks each year!). In the past 20 years, some important family activities have been on the decline (family dinners have declined 33% and family vacations have decreased by 28%). On top of the dramatic increase in work, there are different stresses in the world than when we grew up. First, we live in a society where safety, on many levels, is a real concern. Second, most families don’t have childcare readily accessible from within their family and community. Also, we’re in a state of significant financial insecurity; gone are the days of retiring after 40 years with the same company.

Everyone Needs Balance!

One thing is certain. There’s a great deal of debate over where to draw the line between a child being busy enough and being too busy. The balance that needs to be achieved will be different for every child on the basis of his/her academic needs, temperament, environment, and the family’s needs.

Too Many Activities?

Some experts contend that children who are involved in a near constant flow of activities don’t have the opportunity to learn to be at ease when they’re alone. Having lived by activity schedules and often being around other people, they aren’t able to learn the joy of solitude and they aren’t given an opportunity to express creativity, daydream and self-reflect. More important, perhaps, they haven’t realized the value of making time for fun. This, along with achievement pressure and a decrease in family time are the frequently cited issues.

Research has shown that an overbooked child can lead to a less active teenager. Simply put, over-scheduled children may become burned out later in life. Research also suggests that children who have played a sport with intensity for an extended period of time eventually tire of the activity as it becomes routine and the love of the sport is lost (which might explain why 70% of kids quit playing their favorite sport by their teens!).

Too Much Free Time?

On the flipside, Susan M. McHale, Ph.D., of Penn State led a study that monitored how fourth and fifth graders spent their free time. Her team examined school grades, depression levels and parental reports at the beginning and end of a two-year period. Devoting more free time to structured and supervised activities such as hobbies and sports appears to enhance a tween’s academic, emotional and behavioral development at this age. Spending more time playing outdoors and hanging out, in contrast, appear to have a negative impact on development. Contrary to popular belief, recent research rejects the notion that most kids are over-scheduled and are suffering as a result. In fact, less than one in ten could be described as over-scheduled and involvement in those extracurricular activities can be linked with positive social, behavioral, and psychological outcomes. Other research also indicated that extracurricular participation up to ten hours per week was almost always positive, and participation up to 15 and even 20 hours per week was generally associated with positive development. Academic performance and emotional stability levels off or declines after extracurricular involvement beyond 20 hours per week (as a point of reference, only 3-6% of the child and youth population participate more than 20 hours per week).*

Determine the Balance

It’s important to consider what the right balance is, so that your tween has enough to keep him/her stimulated and challenged, but not so much that they’re overwhelmed.

Experts suggest that, with your guidance, let your preteen choose their after school activities, along with how busy they want to be, but watch for signs of burnout. To help you think about whether your tween may be participating in too many activities, consider the following:

• Does your child go from one activity to another with little or no enthusiasm?
• Is he/she having trouble sleeping at night?
• Does he/she complain of not having enough time to spend with friends?
• Is the phrase “hurry up or we’ll be late” used excessively?
• When did he/she last participate in “quality” family time?
• Does your child have time to explore different interests (other than activities) that they may have?
• Does he/she enjoy the activity or is he/she particularly self-critical as an outcome of some/all activities?

Beyond the sheer volume of activities, we also need to focus on the participation impact to our preteen. The intense and critical focus on performance in these activities may be the greater impact, causing stress and other issues. While the research says extracurricular activities provide a positive outlet for children and lower the likelihood of risky behavior, over-scheduling a child can introduce other stress factors that might potentially lead to a burned-out child. Remember, some of the best interactions with our tweens occur during downtime-just talking, preparing meals together, working on a hobby or art project, playing sports together, or being fully immersed in childhood.

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