Thursday, July 9, 2009

Is Over-Scheduling Good for Kids?

We are all products of the era in which many of us try to cram in as much as possible in a short amount of time. Lost are the days in which idle chit chat, sitting on porches, and staring at the stars is seen as a vital part of living. Instead, we ensure that every moment of time is spent in some type of productive activity. But, is this good for us? Is it good for our children?

My answer to this is that it depends on whom you and your children are. For me, I need down time. I need time to reflect and talk about things that are not all that important. I need to waste time here and there and wander around aimlessly with no sense of purpose. I need to sleep in from time to time and do nothing the entire day. The reason is that my job as a psychologist can be stressful and I need time to “just veg.” But, this is me and you are you. My children and wife need much the same down time as me and we can tell when we all need to stop and watch cartoons. But, people are all different. Some people need a rigid schedule with lots of stuff to do. If they do not have this, they do not know what to do with themselves. Others need fewer activities and more down time.

In my experience, there are children who do best with a schedule full of activities. These kids thrive on stuff to do and need little down time in which to reflect. These kids crave being in group settings and thrive on constant stimulation. When they do have some down time, they frequently get themselves in trouble because they are not sure how to “just be.” I do not have any judgment regarding whether these children are normal or not. They just are. Structure and stimulation is what they need. I suppose one could say they need to learn how to entertain themselves. But, I prefer to say that is the way they are and to give them what they need, a full plate of activities.

Other children prefer to be on their own with fewer activities. These children need lots of time alone and prefer not to have lots of scheduled activities. They often have to be pushed to do things. These children need some type of structure but not as much as the children described above. With no structure at all, they may be prone to developing a sedentary lifestyle that could become unhealthy. The goal here is to help these children engage in healthy activities and to give them the down time they deserve when it is needed.

With all this discussion, I am reminded of a book that was very influential in my early career. The book is titled, The Hurried Child by David Elkind. This books talks about how children are pushed to grow up too fast. This can create stress and premature completion of crucial developmental stages. When we push and make kids do things they are not yet ready to do, we can create intense anxiety with resulting poor self-esteem. We have to help children go through each stage at their own pace.

My message in response to all of this is to play close attention to your child’s needs. Try and filter out the influence of the culture surrounding you (e.g., having to schedule sleepovers because everyone else is, having to look more mature because all the girls are, having to buy expensive computer games because all the boys have them). Make decisions for your child’s day depending on their unique needs. Keep them moving and learning, but in a moderate way. Ensure they do not stall and do nothing. But, also ensure they do not run around like caffeinated bunny rabbits ready to bite anyone who crosses them. Close monitoring of their current state of being will ensure they grow up with a smile. Thus, in response to over-scheduling being good for kids, it really depends.