Are We Over-Scheduling Our Children?

09/03/2010 08:21 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Every September, I like to scroll through the bios of a group of young people known as the Davidson Fellows. Chosen by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development (a Reno-based nonprofit I consult with), these teens are recognized for rather stunning original projects. Fourteen-year-old Meredith Lehmann, for instance, used trip data from thousands of U.S. counties to analyze how epidemics spread. Anna Kornfeld Simpson, 17, developed a chemical detecting robot.

But even beyond these projects, no one could accuse these young people of coasting. Simpson, for instance, also plays flute and piano, and according to her bio, "One of Anna's main challenges for her project was finding time to research. Due to her schedule of AP and college classes, Youth Symphony and extracurricular activities, she often ended up working on the robot during school holidays and winter break."

Phew, right? Indeed, some folks reading this may be thinking overscheduled, a word that parents and educators like to stew about every fall. Kids feel so compelled to build a college-worthy resume, the story goes, that they're cramming their days (and their winter breaks!) too full.

But when I get to meet these young people at the annual award ceremony in Washington DC, they're hardly anxious bundles of stress. Indeed, many talk of being happiest when they're busy and challenged.

I think they're on to something this back-to-school season. Studies find that for all the angst about kids' schedules, most kids spend surprisingly little time on homework and organized activities. Indeed, many kids would be better off if they -- like the Davidson Fellows -- did more.

Let me explain myself. Ever since kids have stopped spending their days in factories, pundits have been mourning the alleged decline in children's leisure time. As far back as 1939, a report in Childhood Education complained about an increase in organized activities. Modern pundits write books lamenting "hothouse kids" or "overachievers" and making "the case against homework," to quote various titles.

Much literature in this genre is based on impressions -- the upper-middle class children the authors know seem to be doing a lot, or at least all the parents complain about it -- but it turns out we have some data about how kids spend their hours. In recent years, researchers from the University of Maryland have analyzed findings from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which documents children's time use. They found that teens spend 30 of their weekly 168 hours in school. With the 12- to 18-year-old set sleeping 65 hours per week (a little more than nine a day), that leaves 73 hours for other things. Homework took up a mere 4.9 of these hours (about 42 minutes a day), and sports 3.9 hours. "Organizations" (like youth groups) filled 1.2 hours.

To be sure, these are averages. Some children spend more time on activities and studying, but some do less, too. I interviewed Joseph Mahoney, an education professor at the University of California, Irvine, for an essay on this topic for the Wall Street Journal last year. He estimated that about 40 percent of children aren't involved in any activities. Unfortunately, these young people aren't necessarily filling their free time with the unstructured play that adults wax nostalgic about. Many are at home, by themselves, watching TV and eating junk food. That's why participation in organized activities correlates with better academic performance and even lower body-weight.

But surely there is some point where kids do too much? Well, not really. Only 6 percent of children spend more than 20 hours a week on extracurricular activities, Mahoney told me, and even these kids don't suffer from it: "There's no evidence of lower parent-child communication, and no evidence that 20 hours of activities is related to reduced frequency of eating meals together." Think about it. If you are in school 30 hours a week, do 20 hours of activities and double the average teen's homework load (to 10 hours), this comes out to 60 hours. There is still time in a 168-hour week for daydreaming and family meals.

Of course, driving kids to 20 hours of activities can wreak havoc on a parent's schedule. That's why efficient families get smart about children's activities, and arrange carpools, or choose activities that happen on high school campuses, so the kids are already there. They go for economies of scale -- enrolling all their kids in the same activities -- and if possible, look for some that parents can participate in as well. They also help kids focus their time. The Davidson Fellows often put the bulk of their extracurricular hours into their projects, spending enough time on these explorations to actually get results. There is a big difference between doing 10 activities that take two hours each, and spending 15 hours on research and five practicing your instruments.

But when studies peg the average teen television time somewhere between 15 and 24 hours a week, it's hard to argue that most children are at risk of being overscheduled. Indeed, they may be at risk of having too little to do with their time.

(Note: spelling change, Anna Kornfeld Simpson in updated version)