Over-scheduled Child: Does it Matter?

Why is it that in a world of unprecedented technological advances and time-saving innovations, we seem to be busier than ever before? Here's a deep dive into the issue of overscheduling, and five ways to make your family less busy.

Emily Veno
April 13, 2023

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Why is it that in a world of unprecedented technological advances and time-saving innovations, we seem to be busier than ever before?

Is it our economic and social systems causing us to feel immense pressure to achieve more, to climb the ladder of success, to be constantly productive? Or is it the media, with its constant stories of dazzlingly impressive people, and social media, with its constant “highlight reel,” creating the fear of missing out on something important if we simply rest?

What is Over-Scheduling?

As parents, we want the best for our children, and in a world where “best,” often means “most” and “more,” that’s what we give them. We want to give them every opportunity to succeed. This leads some parents to encourage their kids to enroll in as many extracurricular activities as possible.

Of course, there are many benefits to extracurriculars! Participating in extracurricular activities can help kids build social skills, boost self-esteem, and develop new interests. Research has shown kids who participate tend to perform better academically due to learning important skills like time management and discipline.

But of course, as with any modern parenting topic, there are people who say you’re doing the wrong thing, this time by giving your children a busy schedule. You can’t win! Enter...”over-scheduling.”

What is "over-scheduling," exactly? Simply put, it's when a child's schedule is so packed with organized activities and scheduled events that they have little to no free time. Is this a real problem, or just another thing to make you doubt your parenting abilities?

In this post, we'll explore the concept of over-scheduling, analyze how big of a problem it really is, and discuss its impact on family life and child development. We'll also provide some tips for bringing balance to your child's schedule and creating more downtime for your family.


An Age of Over-Scheduling

There are real societal trends driving kids to be busier. Academic pressure has increased, and it genuinely is harder to get into college than it used to be, causing kids to fill up their schedules to pad their resumes for college applications. The 24-hour-news-cycle has made parents more fearful about child safety than they used to be, meaning that parents are less likely to let their kids roam the neighborhood unsupervised or engage in other forms of unstructured playtime. Today, it’s more likely both a child’s parents work rather than stay at home, and when you’re not willing to let your child be unsupervised, it means they need to be watched. After-school activities are a great form of babysitting.

There are some who argue parenting is a more intense, anxious process than it was in the past, particularly for middle and upper class families. In the New York Times article “Overscheduled Children: How Big a Problem?,” psychologist Dr. Young-Eisendrath said things used to be different, “not just because there was a parent staying at home but because parents didn’t have this obsessive interest in children’s lives.”

Others argue the era of peak overscheduled kid ended with the COVID-19 pandemic. With school activities, extracurricular activities, and everything else cancelled, many families experienced how nice it was to have the time to connect & relax at home together and decided they weren’t going back.

"I personally don't miss any of it, the nonstop birthday parties, the classes," said Pam Moore, a mom of two. "In the pandemic, my kids had time for their imagination, like the night they made their own art gallery to display their art and gave me and my husband docent-like tours. We are being intentional with our time now to make sure these new traditions don't get lost."

At Prisma, we’ve met some families who even decided to homeschool or worldschool based on how much they liked the increased family time and decreased stress during the pandemic.

Understanding the Dangers of Over-Scheduling

In a world where some amount of extracurricular activities are essential for success, it's easy to fall into the trap of over-scheduling. Especially when it’s not clear where the line is between over-scheduled and happily busy. But what might be the potential negative consequences of over-scheduling?

  1. Over-scheduled kids are more likely to experience burnout. They may feel pressured to perform well in all of their activities, which can lead to stress and anxiety. “The last thing you want to do is to have someone going into high school who is sick and tired of doing so much that they stop trying academically," says Alvin Rosenfeld, the author of popular book on this topic, The Over-Scheduled Child.
  2. Stress can have negative impacts on wellness. Overscheduled kids may experience physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches. Kids need lots of sleep, and lack of free time can impact sleep schedules, which can impact mental and physical health.
  3. Over-scheduling can stifle social skills. It’s important for kids to learn how to interact without adults watching or planning the activities. This over-supervision can make it difficult for kids to develop strong peer relationships which may impact their self-esteem.
  4. Kids who are never bored won’t develop the creativity & drive they need to succeed. The ability to self-direct, take initiative, and make your own fun is essential to future happiness. If you want your child to have an entrepreneurial, self-sufficient spirit, make sure they aren’t always being told exactly what to do. (This is why, at Prisma, we focus on building kids’ Initiative & Follow Through through self-directed creative projects).
  5. Finally, over-scheduling can take a toll on family life. When everyone in the family is constantly on the go, it can be hard to find time to bond. Family time is essential for building strong relationships and fostering a sense of well-being, so it's important to make time for it.

How Many Activities is Too Many?

So, how do you know if your child is overscheduled? The answer will vary depending on your child's age, interests, and personality.

Elementary School

Experts like pediatrician Alvin Rosenfeld, author of "The Over-Scheduled Child," suggest very young children (lower elementary or younger) should have no more than one or two scheduled activities per week.

Middle School

As children enter upper elementary and middle school, they may be able to handle more activities, but it's still important to make sure they have plenty of unstructured time. Middle school is a time where kids figure out what they’re interested in, so it’s important to allow flexibility, exploration, and switching of activities in this stage.

High School

In high school, it's common for students to be involved in multiple school activities, and extracurriculars do help with college applications. Many kids at this age can and should handle busy schedules. However, a word of caution: many colleges are looking for “spiky” applicants over “well-rounded” applicants, meaning they prioritize depth of experience rather than many shallow experiences. At Prisma High School, we focus on helping kids build a portfolio of standout projects demonstrating their strengths, rather than accumulating as many school activities to list as possible.

It’s About Personality: Yours and Theirs!

Some kids can handle more activities than others. If they are truly passionate about all their activities, you might be surprised by how much they can handle. You know your child best, but warning signs their schedule is becoming too much might be moodiness, complaining about activities they used to like, low energy, getting sick a lot, or having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning.

Parent attitude matters, too. Some would argue it’s not the amount of activities, it’s how parents act about the activities causing anxiety. Do you ever find yourself putting pressure on how your child performs in their activity? Do you compare your child to others? Do you pressure them not to quit something they don’t want to do anymore?

And of course, most kids don’t know when to quit. They get caught up in the excitement. It’s your job as a parent to model skills for planning life to avoid undue stress.

Creating More Downtime in Your Family's Schedule

If you suspect your child is overscheduled, it's important to take action to create more unstructured time in their schedule. Easier said than done, we know!

  1. It’s easier to prevent this issue than stop it in its tracks, so plan your family’s activities as much as you can in advance. Do a summer activity audit where you scope out the year. Some families set a rule for number of activities for each kid, but you can take a less structured approach by starting with the highest priority thing for each family member, drafting out a potential monthly and weekly calendar, and adding and discussing as you go. What are your priorities? How many nights off do you want? Anything from last year you don’t want to do this year?
  2. And hey, this should not just be a conversation about the kids. It should also be about what parents like to do! Does mom have a monthly book club? Is dad in a golf league? Let your kids hear about these considerations. It’s not good for anyone to treat parents like a chauffeur always at beck and call.
  3. Emphasize the importance of downtime: Talk to your child about why it's important to have time to just relax and play. Make sure they see you taking downtime for yourself as well!
  4. Not every activity needs to be structured. Consider lower-lift versions of activities for some interests. Instead of playing travel soccer, meet up for sports in a local park with friends. Instead of a weekly art class, buy art supplies and watch MasterClass or YouTube tutorials to create one extra night at home.
  5. Plan family activities: Whether it's going for a walk, playing board games, or just spending time together, this will help strengthen your family bond and give everyone a chance to relax and enjoy each other's company. I had a friend growing up who could never do school activities on Thursdays because it was her family’s weekly game night. Even as a high schooler, I was jealous of their close bond!

Overall, overscheduling is something to consider in context of your family’s values & personalities. Maybe being super busy fits your family’s energy and vibe! Or maybe you’d prefer a slower lifestyle with more depth than breadth (if so, check out this article on "slow parenting.") You know what’s best, and trust your instincts. Judging ourselves based on the standards of others got us into this mess in the first place!

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