Monday, April 18, 2011

Extracurricular Activities: How Much Is Too Much?

I drive my children to extracurricular activities every day of the week except Tuesday and Saturday. During seasonal soccer and baseball, Tuesday is the only day that we spend entirely at home. And I’ll be painfully honest: I’m a bit weary of  it. The struggle just to cook dinner or eat together because we are not home bothers me. And I don’t like the feeling that I am always in a hurry to get somewhere. Even more telling is that my children are complaining about it. It isn’t that they dislike extracurricular activities; the opposite is true. I am simply realizing more and more that my children WANT to be at home. And like me, they don’t enjoy the continual hurry from one place to another. Admittedly, one of the benefits of home education is that kids have more time to pursue their favorite interests. But how many supplementary activities can they be involved in before it becomes too stressful for the entire family? Where should we draw the line?

Following is a list of activities that one or more of my children has been involved in weekly throughout this school year:

Gymnastics
Piano lessons
Art class
Ballet
Drama class
Children’s choir
Awana clubs
Soccer (seasonally)
Baseball (seasonally)

Much has been written about “overscheduled children” and the psychological problems that can develop from too much activity. I would be bold enough to assert that most American children AND their parents are experiencing the effects of chronic overscheduling. And my children are living proof that homeschool families are not exempt. While it is true that such children spend a lot more time at home than their traditionally schooled peers, the principle still applies. After all, our lifestyle is called homeschooling, but there are days when many of us feel like we are "car schooling". At a meeting last fall, I listened to a speaker discuss this very topic. She suggested that parents purposefully leave “margins” in their family schedules, which simply means to make sure that plenty of time is set aside when no one in the family has to do anything or be anywhere outside the home. I thought it made a lot of sense, but apparently it is easier said than done. How well did I accomplish the goal of protecting margins of time this year? Two words: Epic failure. Please don’t misunderstand: I really don’t think that my children are particularly sad or overstressed. I simply feel that we would all be happier and function better if we were home more, particularly in the evenings.

A general rule that I have and do not plan to change is that my kids are required to follow through with something once they have committed to it. So even if my kids become bored with choir, they must persist until the upcoming performance is over because others are depending on them to participate. If they grow tired of soccer, they must tough it out for the remainder of the season because their teams and coaches are counting on them. This is a valid rule because personal responsibility and accountability are important throughout all of life and it is never too early to learn these principles. I do not allow my children to quit something whenever they want to, but I must have some rules in place before I ever begin scheduling their activities. I believe that such rules will protect them from becoming overtired and also help them to enjoy the activities that they are participating in all the more. The difficulty is that my children are interested in doing and learning a lot of different things and it is easy to get carried away! As the mother, I must set limits ahead of time and help them to prioritize their interests.

I think that some parents feel concerned about their children having too much free time. I have heard people say that it is good for their kids to stay very busy in order to “keep them out of trouble”. While I understand that there might be a bit of truth in this, I do not agree with it. Unstructured time for children does sometimes result in discipline issues.  I deal with this in my home in the forms of disobedience, sibling rivalry, and general rowdiness. Although it is never pleasant, my duty is to help the children learn to deal with conflict and frustration when such situations arise. They need to understand why it is  important to love one another and how to respond when angry or when they do not get their own way. I do not think it is good to keep our children overly busy with the purpose of avoiding conflict with them. These are teachable moments that are necessary and good. And think of the benefits of freeing up some of their time. They might enjoy spending the extra time in imaginative play or interacting with siblings and friends. Maybe they would be open to meaningful discourse with parents as a result of additional time spent together. Perhaps they would read more books or develop a new hobby. There might be time to play family board games or have movie and popcorn nights. Yes, these are some of the benefits of having more free time! A few naughty behaviors pale in comparison!

Next year I plan to allow each of my children to choose one evening activity at church and one evening activity outside of church that occur weekly. In addition, I will continue to allow both daughters to participate in homeschool drama because they love it, they can do it together, and best of all, regular rehearsals are always during the day! My oldest daughter might be allowed to participate in one additional activity because she has shown a fervent interest in the arts and I believe that it is appropriate to allow extra time for her to develop her abilities. My younger children, on the other hand, are still “testing the waters” to find the things that they like to do best. Most significantly, I will have a predetermined schedule that lists the evenings that we will stay home and the evenings that extracurricular activities will be allowed. If the children’s desired endeavors do not fit into that schedule, they will need to choose something else to be involved in for the year.

I know that I am not alone in my struggle with this. I certainly do not have all the answers, but I am prayerfully seeking the best for my family. Extracurricular activities serve a useful purpose for us, but it is not healthy for children to experience the stress of becoming involved in too many of them. I would honestly love to hear your tips on how to successfully manage family schedules. Please comment below because this is an area in which I need to learn from others. Perhaps we will benefit from supporting each other as we attempt to do a better job of protecting our margins!

Below are links to helpful articles about the harmful effects of overscheduling our children:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200303/are-we-pushing-our-kids-too-hard

http://www.parentdish.com/2010/04/28/how-many-extracurricular-activities-are-too-many/