Your intentions are good. Your preschooler loves to dance so you’ve signed her up for ballet. Your middle schooler is in a travel soccer league because you can see a sports scholarship in his future. You’ve pushed your high schooler to join the chess club because he’s a loner.
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But have you over-scheduled your kids?
“Over-scheduling is really about being so organized that you don’t have time to be a kid, and your family doesn’t have time to be a family,” says Deb Lonzer, MD, Chair of Community Pediatrics for Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital. “You live by the calendar rather than living life.”
It’s important to know the signs of over-scheduling in children. “These kids don’t eat right, they don’t sleep right, they stop having friends, and it has an impact on the family,” says Dr. Lonzer. “If you notice that you haven’t had fun with your kids for six months, then they’re overscheduled.”
Trimming the schedule
Kids should not have an activity scheduled every day, she says, and recommends that parents sit down with each child to help them choose their top three activities.
Then stick to your guns. If your child wants to add a new activity, make sure he or she drops an old one. “Help your child choose activities based on the benefit gained by the child and the family versus the time invested by everyone,” says Dr. Lonzer.
Driving across the state every three weeks for 16 hours’ ice time with a figure skating coach may seem to be in a child’s best interests — but how does it impact the family who has to go along for the ride and live in the motel?
The beauty of down time
Limiting organized activities clears the calendar for all-important “down time” for play, relaxation and family, which is critical for children, says Dr. Lonzer.
Look at your calendar for available down time.
Better yet, “write in sleep time, down time, meal time, family time,” says Dr. Lonzer. “That will keep a pattern going that includes fun organized activities and plenty of down time — and it will help kids see that those things are just as important as their organized activities.”
Play time: Stay out of the way
Kids today don’t play as much as they should, Dr. Lonzer says. “Give them the cardboard box instead of the toy once in a while. In the winter time, buy a snowsuit, throw them out in the backyard and say, ‘Come back in an hour, I’ll make you cocoa.’ They need to develop creativity and imagination.”
If they have friends over for a play date, don’t organize their fun. Let kids figure it out for themselves. If they complain that they’re bored, let them come up with a solution.
And don’t worry if you find a child daydreaming, says Dr. Lonzer. “If it looks like kids are wasting time, they’re building their brains, so just walk away happy.”
What about ‘loners’?
Parents tend to worry that something is wrong if a child is not interested in joining organized activities. But some children truly prefer drawing or playing with Legos on their own. “Everybody has to find their own path,” she says. “Don’t project your emotions onto your child.”
Instead, support your child’s individualistic pursuits. (Don’t force a group activity onto your child as that’s likely to backfire.)
Mandate family time
“We ask that parents schedule 20 minutes, five times a week, as family time to play board games, shoot hoops, whatever. That has been shown to be effective in developing imagination and increasing family bonding — which decreases risk-taking behaviors and even obesity as kids get older,” says Dr. Lonzer.
Take kids for a walk — leaving the earbuds and cell phones at home — and simply enjoy the experience. “Ask your child, ‘What does that tree look like?’ or ‘Have you ever seen that bird before?’” she suggests. “Don’t think about what you have to do for school or work tomorrow.
“Everything is not a journey to a destination. Help your child understand that living in the moment is really good for us and is actually quite relaxing.”
One final note: Model a good work-life balance for your kids. “Try to budget your time. Don’t procrastinate. Teach them, ‘don’t worry about what’s next, worry about what’s now,’” Dr. Lonzer advises.