For Some Busy Kids, It's All Good

Helen Williams spends her afternoons running her children to football practice, gymnastics, swimming lessons and piano lessons. Williams says she doesn't think her children have too much on their schedules, but some of her friends worry that Williams might.
By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008

A new wave of research into the lives of middle-class children bucks conventional wisdom and concludes they are not the overscheduled, frazzled generation that many believe them to be.

It might be only that their parents are on overload, one researcher suggests.

Two studies based on data about how children spend their days show that only a minority are heavily scheduled and that organized activities are linked to positive outcomes in school, emotional development, family life and behavior.

The children most at risk have no activities at all, the studies showed.

That research is augmented by several studies that, together, provide a scientific perspective on childhood activities at a time when they have become a way of life and a cause for concern among educators and psychologists. Until recently, overscheduling as a phenomenon has not been widely explored in data-based studies, researchers say.

Many middle-class parents say they feel pressure to give their sons and daughters every opportunity -- violin, soccer, ballet, Scouts -- and then worry that their children are overextended to the point of harm.

"I found the opposite of what I expected," said Sandra L. Hofferth, director of the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland at College Park and lead author of a research paper released this year that will be part of a book.

Hofferth said she had "started out with a pretty solid belief that lots and lots of activities are bad for children." But she said the data showed otherwise: A higher level of activity was not linked to such stress symptoms as depression, anxiety, alienation and fearfulness.

"We just don't find that the children who are more active are more stressed," she said.

Parental stress, on the other hand, might be another matter. "One thing I do think is that parents are having trouble with it, and they're the ones who are having a hard time trying to figure out how to manage children's lives as well as their own," Hofferth said.

For such parents as Matt Schmucker, 46, a father of five on Capitol Hill, the findings are illuminating but leave open the question of how well families manage the stress of so many far-flung lessons, classes and sports.

Schmucker and his wife limit their children's activities, including a no-sports-on-Sundays rule despite the growing number of games that fall on their day of worship. The rule is not always popular, but "there is more to being a family than any particular child's schedule," Schmucker said.

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