As a nanny, picking the kids up from their extracurricular activities always made me feel like I was part of “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” I started asking myself whether it was doing more harm than good for kids to have so much on their plate while they are, well, still kids. Pure as our intentions may be, will we even be able to identify the signs of burnout in our children?
Children find themselves living in overdrive without the option to change gears, and overscheduling your kid may have ramifications that you will realize when it’s all too late. Humans are multi-sensory learners. We gain knowledge best by using as many of our senses as possible, but not all of life’s lessons can be learned in the classroom. This is why sports and extracurricular activities are essential for learning and building on these senses. All within reason, of course, because the long-term effects of overscheduling your child may be more damaging to their psyche than you realize.
A new study of 50 families from 12 primary schools in North West England discovered that 88% of children took part in organized extracurricular activities 4 to 5 days a week. Of these children, 58% engaged in more than 1 activity during the evening. Extracurricular activities were found to dominate family life. One can multiply the complexity of creating a balance when a household has 2 or more children.
This resulted in families spending less quality time together, and money and energy reserves were running low by the time Friday came around. Let’s not forget that even weekends are jam-packed with extracurricular activities. For older children with a lot of homework, clubs for teenagers are starting to appear over the weekend and are no longer limited to the regular 5-day week as we know it.
Are kids overscheduled?
How does one describe overscheduled children, and how big a problem is it? What does all of this really mean?
Free play and play dates are essential for a child’s development, but the reality is that you may not have time to arrange these dates for your kids anymore. The timing of these extracurricular activities clashes with “scheduled” free time arrangements. The result is that children never end up enjoying playtime with their friends and allowing their creative juices to flow unstructured.
We must confess that it has become convenient for working-class parents to keep their children busy during the afternoon so the kids don’t wander aimlessly through their young lives learning nothing. On the other hand, could it be an underlying fear that children will fall behind and remain forever stuck at the back of the line if they don’t excel whenever an opportunity presents itself?
We underestimate how important sleep is for children and often forget that having too many extracurricular activities is taxing for a tiny human. They just want to be hugged and praised (even if there is no reason at all) by their parents in the evening. It becomes increasingly difficult for a child to wind down and sleep properly when they arrive home late in the day, have to share attention with siblings, and receives only instructions to “go have a bath and get to bed; you have a full day ahead tomorrow.”
Children need time to connect with their emotions. Parents try to run this show as smoothly as possible so that everyone in the house is in a state of perpetual happiness. Pushing your child to succeed has become the new normal. Helicopter parenting is a term we are all familiar with. We’re quick to condemn others for using this strategy, but without knowing it, you may be doing it too if you don’t allow your kids a breather by filling their days with extracurricular activities.
Children don’t have time to experience their moods; they are enrolled in activities that will hopefully teach them to be more resourceful and resilient, but in reality, in order to manage these feelings and develop a sense of self, they need to play, play again, and then play some more.
To avoid the hyper-parenting trap and learn to truly act in your kid’s best interests, check out The Overscheduled Child by Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise. The book can guide you away from an overeager pursuit to micro-manage everything towards finding a healthier balance in life. This page-turner will give you the tools you need to achieve the goals of the whole family.
Signs of burnout in your child
Keep your eyes open for signs of burnout that your child might be subconsciously displaying.
If your child is suddenly annoyed by little things that didn’t bother them in the past or loses their temper more quickly than usual, it could be a sign of burning out.
If your child was generally happy and suddenly seems demotivated, this may be a warning. Kids are allowed to have emotions, just like us adults, and while I believe the line between negative vibes and laziness should be closely monitored, when we push kids too hard, we may cause them to totally clock out of what they’re doing and lose their zest for life.
That “whatever” response from your child could be their way of communicating their loss of interest in the task. It could often be linked to fear or anxiety of having either a parent or a teacher react negatively should they drop out of the class or activity. So, the child continues to participate just to keep these adults happy.
Clearly, this isn’t ideal, but not all children are verbal and can comfortably express their loss of interest. Be on the lookout for any disinterest in activities that previously filled your child with joy.
Your child is suddenly avoiding events or situations. They may also become socially distant and lose their desire to participate in group activities or sports. They may fake a cough or even say they have a lot of homework-anything to get out of going to the class.
When this becomes a regular occurrence, try to dig a little deeper to find where these excuses stem from and the real reason your child suddenly no longer wants to go to jiu-jitsu.
Helping your kids avoid or escape a burnout rut
Stopping burnout in your kids may not be all black and white, but there are ways to get them out of a burnout rut or avoid it altogether.
Plug into your child
Connect with your child by listening to them with the intent to understand. Observe. Play with them or watch them play by themselves. Children aren’t masters in the art of communication, and perhaps through mere observation, you may learn more about your kid than from organizing too many extracurricular activities with the hope of discovering what their talent is.
You need to broaden your scope and way of thinking about talent because by connecting with your children-without any pressure-they will show you what they are good at and very likely surprise you.
Acknowledge that every child has their season to shine
Remember this if nothing else: no amount of extracurricular overload will result in your child bringing home gold medals after every swimming competition or chess tournament. Not every child can excel at everything all the time. It’s physically impossible.
Allow your kid the privilege of being able to deal with losing or ending in 2nd or 5th place. This is just as crucial for their development. Some trees simply need more time to produce fruit than others, but it doesn’t mean that one tastes sweeter than the other.
Avoid setting up unreasonable expectations and take care of yourself, too
Parents have high expectations for themselves and consider it their own failure if their child doesn’t succeed in any extra classes. High expectations and depression walk hand in hand as parents start to feel washed out by a busy schedule, taking no time to recalibrate. This has one at risk of entering what I call a “red zone.”
Saying something like “I paid good money for these lessons, but I see no results” is not only damaging to the child but shows that the parent is placing themselves under financial pressure to achieve a goal that isn’t even theirs. Take time to reconnect with yourself as a parent, which is just as important.
Utilize family time
Regardless of how your family life is structured, make sure you spend time together. When one parent is dropping a child off at soccer practice and the other making trips to the language school, you get to the point where you consider yourselves lucky if your paths cross long enough for you to wave at each other.
Being home with their parents is the safe zone for children. Home is where children learn about the values of their family, not those of society. They can be their authentic selves at home, which should make you rethink what you are really offering your children in their safe zone versus the long list of activities planned for each week.