When you sign your child up for scouts, travel soccer, track and/or chess club, your intentions are good.
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You want your kid to learn how to hone skills. Or you see a sports scholarship in his or her future. Or you hope to make it a tad easier for a shy child to make friends.
Maybe it’s all of the above. But while enriching your child’s life is a good thing, overscheduling activities can take a toll on your child — and family.
“Kids whose time is overly organized don’t have time to be kids, and their family doesn’t have time to be a family,” says pediatrician Deb Lonzer, MD. “They typically don’t eat well, sleep well or make friends properly.”
This can set kids up for future depression and anxiety, and hamper their ability to solve problems and make good decisions.
Be reasonable and realistic
Could the calendar be running your family’s life? Here’s one way to check: Think about the last time you simply had fun with your kids. If it’s been weeks or months, you may need to adjust their schedule.
Dr. Lonzer believes kids shouldn’t have an activity scheduled every day. Instead, she suggests parents sit down with each child to help them choose their top three activities.
Then stick to the plan. If your child wants to add an activity, make sure they drop one.
“When helping your child choose activities, weigh the benefits for both the child and family against the time everyone will have to invest,” says Dr. Lonzer.
For example, consider how driving long distances so one child can participate in an elite sport will impact your other kids. Weigh the pros and cons.
The beauty of down time
Limiting organized activities clears the calendar for the all-important “down time” kids need for play, relaxation and family.
Scan your calendar for available down time, or consider writing in “sleep time, down time, meal time and family time,” says Dr. Lonzer.
“The balance of fun, organized activities with plenty of down time will help kids see that all of these things are important.”
“During downtime, all electronics should be powered down,” Dr. Lonzer stresses.
Play time: Let kids take the lead
Dr. Lonzer believes kids aren’t playing enough. “Once in a while, give them the cardboard box instead of the toy,” she suggests.
“In the winter, buy a snowsuit, send them out in the backyard and say, ‘Come back in an hour, and I’ll make you cocoa.’ Help them 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 about being bored, give them space to come up with a solution.
And don’t worry if you catch your child daydreaming, says Dr. Lonzer. “It may look like kids are wasting time, but they’re building their brains. Just walk away, happy.”
What if kids aren’t ‘joiners’?
Parents tend to worry when a child is not interested in joining organized activities. But some children truly prefer being on their own, drawing or playing with Legos®.
“Everybody has to find their own path,” she says. “It doesn’t help for parents to project their emotions onto a child. Your child may be experiencing things differently.”
Forcing an unwilling child into group activities will backfire; instead, support their individual pursuits.
Scheduling family time
“We ask that parents schedule 20 minutes, five times a week, as family time — to play board games, shoot hoops, whatever,” says Dr. Lonzer.
“This practice has proven effective in developing imagination and increasing family bonding, which decreases risk-taking behaviors and even weight problems as kids get older.”
Take your kids for a walk — leaving the ear buds and cellphones at home — and simply enjoy the experience.
“Ask your child, ‘What does that tree look like, to you?’ or ‘Have you ever seen that kind of bird before?’” she suggests.
“Don’t talk about what they have to do for school or think about what you’ll face at work tomorrow. Everything is not a journey to a destination.”
Help your child understand that living more in the moment is a good thing. “Tell them, ‘Let’s not worry about what’s next, let’s worry about what’s now.’”
On a final note, she advises modeling a good work-life balance. “Let your kids see you pacing yourself, not procrastinating or cramming, but budgeting your time well,” Dr. Lonzer advises.