10/03/2013 06:03 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Rebellion of the Scheduling Sort


We are officially past the start of the school year, with all the requisite pencils sharpened and necessary items (according to the advertising, anyway) purchased. By the time the first leaves fall, the next phenomenon has begun in earnest: Football season. And the start of dance club. And music lessons. And tai kwon do, drill team, Girl Scouts, mock trial, debate, and much, much more. Many kids participate in several of these activities at once, and more and more frequently, they begin when they're much younger than ever before.

Parents pay lip service, and many actually believe, in the value of slowing down. We know there's something wrong with an 8-year-old getting stress headaches from being overscheduled, or the fact that parents are running all over town themselves, such that they never see their spouse (who may be playing chauffer for another kid's activities), let alone get everyone at home at the same time for dinner. Parents claim to want a saner lifestyle where an evening is characterized more by play than by traffic. But what does this new awareness actually mean? It means that parents sign their kids up for just two activities instead of three, or they add a kids' yoga class in for good measure. Our culture has a force-field all its own, and the truth is, there are very understandable reasons our kids get overscheduled. Here are the most common:

I want to offer them exposure to different activities. This is the time they're learning what they like and what they don't.

Good point, but realize that they are already getting exposure in school -- certainly by kindergarten, and some preschools, too, offer music, art, and physical fitness. They might not need to play on a soccer team to recognize that they love soccer. Also, it's okay to expose them to multiple interests, but be conscientious about not doing it all at once. Set aside one or at most two evenings/afternoons a week for dance class and soccer practice, but they needn't pursue all their interests in the same season.

If they don't start a language/music program now, they'll never catch up.

There are excellent reasons to expose children's fertile brains to new things, so if you want to follow Suzuki and sign your kid up for violin at age five, go for it. But then have that be his only structured activity other than school, and try to keep practice times limited. Most importantly, parents shouldn't underestimate the value of developing critical thinking skills. Putting on plays and figuring out where to stage them and how to make the costumes is as important to a child's development as learning to read music. Study after study suggests we are raising a generation of followers, not leaders. They're excellent at playing the notes in front of them, for instance, but not so adept at coming up with original thoughts.

But my daughter wants to do all of these activities -- she has an insatiable energy for them!

I was like this myself, so I get it. Still, I'd tell my younger self to relax, for heaven's sake. To mums and dads, I say meet her halfway, and if she wants to do three activities and you want her to do one, allow her to do two. Teach her the important life lesson of making hard choices, and how it's just as important to care for your body and rest as it is to pursue your passions with a passion. Also, it's perfectly reasonable to remind her how expensive these activities are. Just as you don't buy her every new coat she wants (I hope!), it's equally important for her to learn that sometimes there will be things she wants and the answer will be no.

I wouldn't have my son doing quite as much after school, but all of his friends are -- there's no one for him to play with if he isn't going from one thing to the next.

Okay, but how much time does he really have? Say he's a middle-schooler and is out of school at about 3:30 p.m. By the time he's taken a break, then completed his homework, it's nearly dinnertime. Then it's reasonable for him to help clean up, and spend perhaps an hour to himself before dinnertime. That doesn't seem like so much time to me! It seems like a sensible evening. But if your child seems lonely, then band together with other parents who are equally committed to a saner lifestyle, and initiate a series of play-dates.

Naturally, schedules will vary depending on your child's age and energy-level. It's impossible to offer hard-and-fast guidelines for how many hours of free time a child should have at any given stage, but here are a few important tips to keep in mind:

It only gets busier. If your kindergartner is busy three nights a week, when do you foresee that schedule letting up? By second grade? I don't think so. What if there's a second child or a third? Three kids times three activities a week is a lot of time, money, and driving. It only builds, so take your time and take the long view.

Proximity is crucial. If the dance class eight blocks from your house isn't the "best," so what? Your daughter will still get exposure to dance, and you won't have to drive all over kingdom-come. Remember, your happiness, your free time, your sanity matter a lot, too. You don't have to give any of that up for a teacher who's slightly better or a school with more polished floors.

Boredom teaches creativity. Kids are losing the ability to entertain themselves, and the more we shepherd them from one activity to the next, the more they'll look at us expectantly when they find themselves with nothing to do. Help them learn the valuable skill of looking around themselves for something to do, and you may be impressed by the result.

Gaps are gifts. When there's time to spare, you may be happily surprised by what emerges: Fun-themed family dinners, puddle-stomping, and going out for hot chocolate on a whim. My friend Christina was delighted to see her first-grader son delve into origami one day. She can't wait to see what's next.

Find like-minded parents. I'm not trying to create a rift between the over-schedulers and the under-schedulers. My point is just that it's tempting to give in to the cornucopia of fun-seeming activities your child is invited to join every day, and it's equally tempting to try to keep up with the Joneses. Don't feel pressured to put your kids into a slew of activities because that's what other parents are doing. You are not doing your child a disservice if you abstain, I promise! Find other parents to talk with who are also protecting their children's time, and keep the faith. And who knows? You might just begin to change the culture.