01/23/2012 08:53 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2012

The Overextended Toddler

When my first daughter was six weeks old I introduced her to my teenage cousin, Alex. After appropriately oohing and aahing over her spit up and gas-induced smiles, Alex asked, "What activities are you going to sign Elana up for when she's two?" At that point I hadn't thought much past getting the baby to sleep in three-hour stretches, so I responded "Oh, you know, the normal toddler pageantry and opera lessons, but if she shows an aptitude for curling, I'll enroll her in that too."

Then a few months ago, someone wrote into my local parents' group asking where to buy a swimsuit for her two-month-old daughter who was about to start swim lessons. Seriously? Swimming lessons at two months old? At this age the child is just beginning to see beyond black and white objects, and barely able to follow her mother's voice; does she really need begin learning how to blow bubbles? If you want to get your newborn accustomed to swimming pools, toss her in a lukewarm bathtub with a pair of goggles and some fins.

Unfortunately this is no new trend in the ever-increasing world of hyper-parenting. There is now a large variety of extracurricular opportunities we can now offer our youngest population. Here is just a sampling of the class options for a three-year-old in San Francisco: hula, ballet, hip hop, tap, body movement, young zoologist, art, soccer, swimming, tennis, toddler yoga, circus training, gymnastics, karate, Taekwondo, music, drumming, Taiko drumming, cooking and baking, Spanish, and Mandarin. I don't know about you, but I certainly don't want to teach a group of six toddlers percussion instruments, let alone how to make marinara.

This need to provide children with all possible opportunities may be more of an American parenting value. European parents appear to be less of the "helicopter" variety and the children participate in fewer organized activities.

Last week Cow & Gate, a U.K. formula and baby food company, released their "potty list"-- the top activities all children should experience by the age of three. To compile the list the site asked more than 1000 (European) parents what they considered to be the most important milestones toddlers accomplish by age three. Here are the top ten must do activities:

1. Make a mud pie

2. Bake a cake

3. Finger paint

4. Sing loudly in public

5. Climb a big hill

6. Pick fruit

7. Dance without any inhibitions

8. Make sandcastles on the beach

9. Be chased by a monster

10. Jump in a puddle so hard the water went in mummy's shoe too

Notice that learning how to plie, count to ten in Espanol, and categorize reptiles are nowhere on this list. If Gerber had conducted the same survey, I'm willing to bet memorizing the ABC's and completing a 12-piece puzzle would have topped their responses.

The obvious question is whether these toddler classes are a positive addition to our parenting. Is the primary job of a parent to give our kids every possible opportunity to prove themselves tiny geniuses (the American model), or is it our job to make them self-sufficient and confident citizens (the more European model)? I'm not sure that we can do both at the same time. When we engage them with constant stimulation and organized activity, how will they learn to play on their own?

Many child development specialists agree. While most are pro parent/child free-play classes, the majority disagree with the structured activities that pressure child to formally learn. In short, making mud pies and finger painting is great, while one-hour Mandarin lesson with flashcards and homework, not so much.