Is Your Child Overscheduled?

Recent developments in the world have made us all stop and think. Are we over-scheduling ourselves, more so our children’s lives? Read on to find out.

By Divya Sainathan  • 18 min read

Is Your Child Overscheduled?

In comes that ‘ping’ (notification) and you digest your friend’s Facebook story or WhatsApp status about her child’s extracurriculars. You immediately feel the need (read urge) to expose your child to more skills. This happens at a time when you are already concerned your child is whiling away ‘free time’ watching TV, chatting with friends or just lazing around?

The overscheduled child

Take the example of Savitha Krishna, a stay-at-home mom. Her evenings are hectic. She had signed up her 11-year-old son, Darshan, for spelling-bee training because his teacher felt he showed promise. He also attended Bhagavad Gita classes, which he was rather good at. Savitha had taken great trouble to scout for the best maths tutor, even if it was a little farther than she liked. She added swimming to his schedule because she was concerned he did not get enough physical exercise. Savitha was happy to put in all this hard work — Darshan deserved to have a bright future. On her part, she rested in the afternoons while her son was at school and her husband, at work.

After a busy year, when Savitha thought the family had mastered multi-tasking, Darshan began having some troubles. He complained of headache, especially before spell-bee sessions. His swimming instructor told Savitha that he didn’t show much interest or energy at the pool and was merely going through the motions. She put it down to his poor eating; her son seemed to have lost his appetite. He also wanted to sleep in every morning, which made him late for school. It took Savitha a while to realise that her child was overwhelmed and exhausted.

This is a common scenario in today’s world. Most parents struggle to come to terms with structuring their child’s routine. They love to squeeze in as much as possible within the 24 hours of a day, but only a handful understand the importance of a healthy balance. While it is good to help children pursue their interests, you must take care not to go overboard. When too much structuring is imposed on a child’s free time, it can harm their development and well-being.

We sign our children up for a host of activities with the best of intentions. Wouldn’t it be nice to channel their talents and energies into productive and rewarding pursuits? Isn’t it best for them to learn new skills and stand out from a competitive crowd? What harm can come from giving them more opportunities to socialise and make friends?

The dividing line between…

There is a difference between giving your child the right amount of exposure and fitting all their leisure into a time-table. How can you tell whether your child is signed up for too many activities? Watch out for some of these signs:

  • Constantly racing against time — Your child runs on a tight schedule, chugging down meals and snacks in a hurry, changing kits frequently and scrambling from one class to another.
  • Being irritable, moody and grumpy — Tired and overworked kids lash out at everyone just like grown-ups do after a long day. Your child can complain about not having any time to himself or socialising.
  • Falling behind at school — Overscheduled children often struggle to complete schoolwork. Their grades drop because the extracurriculars take more time and energy than they can spare for academics. They may even self-sabotage their studies to rebel against overwork.
  • Not getting enough food or sleep — Disturbed sleep and loss of appetite are classic signs of stress, which can be caused by, among other reasons, too much of organised, goal-oriented activity.
  • Drifting away from close friends — When children are too busy to hang out or catch up with their closest buddies, their friendships take a hit.
  • Losing interest in things they like — Children can start avoiding all their after-school commitments when their favourite activities become performance-based and they are too tired to enjoy anything.
  • Parental stress — You stretch yourself thin while working hard to meet all of your child’s after-school commitments.

Overscheduling — Long-term risks

Overscheduled children have little control over their own time. They depend on their parents to get them to all their activities. They could feel confused and helpless when they have free time on their hands.

Crammed schedules, parental expectations, personal goals and lack of rest and recreation can put undue stress on children. Research indicates that this could lead to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression in the long run.

Children need to relax, unwind and slow down after a day of intense activity. Reading, sleeping, having a bath, resting, taking a break, lying down and doing nothing — these little things help children’s bodies and minds to wind down. This kind of downtime is, however, one of the biggest casualties of overscheduling. Most parents consider screen-time as downtime when, in fact, it is the opposite. Video games and social media demand a child’s attention, social skills and problem-solving. Far from helping a child slow down and sleep, digital devices can overstimulate them and keep them awake. So, if you thought you are solving the issue by replacing screen time with a structured activity, you are only denying the child time to rest physically and mentally.

While mapping out their child’s after-school hours, many parents do not make allowances for free, unstructured playtime. This could deprive children of vital self-discoveries and learning experiences. Every child must indulge in self-directed play, making up their own games and letting their imagination run riot. Such playtime is crucial to their development—it fosters independence, creativity, confidence, leadership and teamwork. It helps build their cognitive, emotional and social skills.

Things that we might consider wasteful and superfluous are actually essential and indispensable to our child’s well-being. We must factor this into the decisions we make about our child’s time and engagement.

Making the right choices

Many parents allow a collective and compulsive urge not to let their children get bored. In our efforts to thwart boredom we might be tempted to involve our children in ‘meaningful’ or ‘fulfilling’ programmes. But we have to realise that our children have ideas of their own. Here are some things to consider before signing children up for enrichment:

  • Age, development, temperament — Younger children don’t need as many scheduled activities as older children. Kindergarteners and early graders don’t need any structured activity. Primary schoolers can handle one or two per week, while older children can juggle up to three different activities. We must also be careful to give children things that challenge them but aren’t difficult enough to make them doubt themselves.
  • Interests and preferences — If we encourage our children to follow their passions, they will be motivated learners. Let children take the lead in choosing their extra-curriculars, be it social programmes (club activities, scouts and guides, etc.) artistic pursuits (music, dance, painting, theatre) or physical activities (sports, athletics, fitness). Every now and then, check with them if they enjoy doing what they have chosen.
  • Motivation — Extra-curricular activities can be fun, interesting and stimulating. But a child’s interests can change over time. And if we focus on performance and results, even sports and games can become burdensome. A stress-buster shouldn’t turn into a source of stress. We need to stay tuned to our child’s evolving interests and help her stay motivated. We must constantly ask ourselves, ‘Who is more eager to get to an activity: our children or us?’
  • Priorities — How do you greet your child when they come home from school: ‘Did you have fun’ or ‘How did you do today’? What is more important to you: family meals or a reputed class taught far away that ends late? Our words, actions, and decisions tell our children what we consider important. We want to send the message that while performance is important, we value health and family more. We must be prepared to cut back on sessions or drop activities when they encroach on mealtimes, bedtime or family time.
  • Limits — We must weigh the worth of an activity against the time and effort it takes, whether it caters to our child’s needs and abilities, and whether it impinges on our responsibilities at work and home. Also, whether the parent has the resources to drive the child to the activity.

When done right, structured activities can arm children with essential life skills while honing their talents and boosting their self-esteem. Sundar Srinivasan, who has two daughters aged 6 and 10, says, “My daughters come home from school, relax for a while, do homework and then they are off to a class each day of the week. Their classes have made a real difference, especially badminton. My girls are fitter, healthier, and more creative than ever. It is worth trading one hour of screen time for an activity a day.”

The most important point to note here is that Sundar draws the line at one hour and one activity per day though, not more.

Finding a balance

It is not easy to be like Sundar, but it is possible. Dr. Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, prescribes ‘PDF’ — Playtime, Downtime and Family time — as the antidote to the stresses of an overly busy childhood. To restore balance into our children’s lives, we must reinstate the very things that they were too busy for in the first place.

Playtime: When was the last time you let your child just be, without meddling in his play, setting up games or charting out his playdates? Children are at their best when they are allowed to play freely, with no plan, agenda or adult interference. They get to decide the who-what-when-where-how of playing. This calls for creativity, problem-solving, experimentation, negotiation, patience, communication, teamwork and courage. The character-building prowess of a structured activity pales in comparison with a lazy afternoon spent pottering about in the garden with random objects.

Downtime: Our bodies and brains need a breather every day to refresh themselves. Sleep is vital for learning, memory, attention, emotional control. It also boosts the immune system, helps repair muscle wear-and-tear, and promotes release of growth hormones. Lack of sleep can lead to serious health issues such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression.

Downtime is not limited to adequate sleep. Soothing, destressing activities with no goal or structure can also translate into downtime. It could be reading, listening to music, daydreaming or simply relaxing on the couch. An after-school snack-and-rest break can make all the difference to a child’s extracurricular calendar. Bedtime routines such as warm baths and story sessions, which help children decompress, are an integral part of downtime. Reclamation of downtime plays a significant role in the fight against the perils of overscheduling.

Family time: We must not allow a schedule of activities to reduce our family unit into a cohabiting team of chauffer-chefs and workhorses. There is so much more to it. Family time is a powerhouse of support, empathy and belonging. It gives us an opportunity to take an interest in and truly understand the most important people in our lives. We can look our children in the eye, listen to their account of their day, hear out their concerns and learn about things that spark their passion.

Inalienable, uninterrupted family time, even a 20-minute screen-free dinner, can go a long way in building our child’s sense of trust, belonging, and security. Loosely structured activities such as game nights, picnics or outings qualify as family time too. Many of these also check the boxes for child-directed playtime or downtime.

Dr Pope’s formula of PDF helps us recalibrate our values and commitments to devote time to things that really matter.

Changing our perspective

It is perfectly natural for parents to have high hopes for their children, to see boundless talent and potential in them. We would like to replace our children’s doodling sessions with art classes, their friendly neighbourhood games with sports coaching or their fun song-and-dance impromptus with music/dance classes. How about holding our horses till the idea comes from the children themselves? And while we are at it, why not reflect on our parenting and detoxify?

Look beyond conventional definitions of success — We must broaden our understanding to value emotional regulation, empathy, self-engagement, independent problem-solving and stress management on par with excellence at school and in extra-curriculars.

Delink child’s worth from their performance in activities — We do not want to put too much pressure on our kids. Nor do we want to take the fun out of sports, games or other activities which are meant to make them feel good. Our unconditional love and support bolster our child’s self-esteem, which will eventually result in greater motivation and better performance, academically or otherwise.

Protect the sanctity of health, relationships, freedom, rest and play — Let us consider scheduling our child’s day around these things, instead of the other way around.

We feel such an oppressive, compulsive urge to give purpose and direction to our children’s days. But the truth is, we do not have to account for every single moment of our children’s lives. It would do them and us a world of good if we let them take charge of some of their time, if not all.

In a nutshell

  • Structured activities are good for children, but overscheduling can be detrimental to their health and development.
  • Children show many signs when a packed schedule of school and extracurricular work takes a toll on them.
  • We must take several factors into consideration before choosing to sign up our children up for structured activities.
  • We must ensure that our children get adequate PDF (Playtime, Downtime and Family time) on a daily basis.
  • We need to change our attitude towards success, skills, productivity, usefulness, meaning and purpose. We must stop equating sleep with wastefulness and boredom with nothingness.

Things you can do right away

  • Schedule family time of about 20 minutes to half an hour on a daily basis. Make sure you have at least one meal a day together, discussing non-productive things. Make an effort to just sit in a room together, even if you don’t interact with each other.
  • Earmark time for unstructured play and relaxation. You could consider making it toy-free or outdoor, giving your children a chance to engage themselves.
  • Set screen curfews and sleep reminders, so that your children don’t take their devices to bed. Make mealtimes and family time screen-free.
  • Support your children in sustaining friendships and social relationships. Be open to playdates, sleepovers, game nights and day trips your children can have with their friends.
  • Check in on your children regularly to see if they enjoy their after-school activities.

About the author:

Written by Divya Sainathan on 15 June 2020.
Divya Sainathan is a writer and editor with a special interest in early childhood education.

About the expert:

Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 16 June 2020.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

Looking for expert tips and interesting articles on parenting? Subscribe now to our magazine. Connect with us on Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | YouTube

Join our Circles to share, discuss and learn from fellow parents and experts!