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.
Elaine Wiggins, a mother of two in Annandale, said she tries to accommodate her children's interests but keep them realistic about how much is too much. She and her 14-year-old son recently decided that he could not do both marching band and cross-country this school year. "It's a huge juggling act," Wiggins said.
The recent research is controversial among many who say overscheduling is a major source of childhood stress. The American Academy of Pediatrics warned in 2006 that a hurried lifestyle could create anxiety or contribute to depression for some children.
Alvin Rosenfeld, co-author of the "The Overscheduled Child" (2000), said the phenomenon is real and took issue with studies that do not account for the driving time that parents put in or the reality that many families include multiple children with conflicting activities.
"Kids don't get enough sleep; they don't get enough downtime to be creative and thoughtful; they don't have enough hangout time," contended William Doherty, a University of Minnesota professor who has organized citizen-parent initiatives against overscheduling.
Doherty cited several polls that reported children's concerns about their lives' busy pace but welcomed the debate and said it is important to dig deeper and examine exactly which forces converge in stressed-out children and families.
In her research, "The Hurried Child: Myth vs. Reality," Hofferth studied children ages 9 to 12, a group she says is most heavily involved in organized activities. The best off were the 58 percent with what she called a more balanced approach: one or two activities, for less than four hours, over the two days tracked in the study. But highly involved children, about 25 percent, did almost as well, she said.
Hofferth's study relied on interviews with children and parents as well as detailed time-use diaries from 331 youths from white middle- and upper-middle-class families across the nation. Hofferth has studied comparable data for middle- and upper-middle-class African American children, she said, finding it "pretty darn similar."
Of particular concern, she said, were the 17 percent of children from her study with no activities, a group that was more withdrawn and socially immature, with lower self-esteem.
Concern about the uninvolved is shared by Martha Fuentes, a mother of five in Landover Hills, who said her 12-year-old daughter wishes she could join a sports team, a karate class or a swim group -- if only the family could find and afford one.
"When they come home from school, they have nothing," said Fuentes, who takes her youngest children to a nearby park every day, hoping they get exercise and spend less time in front of the television. She added, "They need after-school programs, or something that the kids could go and have fun instead of being in the streets."
Hofferth's findings comport with an earlier, broader study, also using time-use data, led by Joseph L. Mahoney, then at Yale University. In a nationally representative study of 2,125 children ages 5 to 18, Mahoney and his colleagues found 3 percent of children and 6 percent of adolescents were highly involved, with 20 or more hours of activities a week.
Most children with activities did them fewer than 10 hours a week. Forty percent of children had no activities at all.
Mahoney's research was published the same year as a work by Columbia University's Suniya Luthar, who led a 2006 study of eighth-graders in an upper-middle-class suburb and found children reacted negatively to pressure for achievement, not to busy schedules.
"Overscheduling really had nothing to do with their upset," Luthar said. "Their upset was much more strongly associated with feelings of being criticized by significant adults in their lives."
She recalled parents who questioned children about sitting on the bench during sports games or failing to land spots in youth orchestras. "The activities stop being a source of enjoyment," she said. "They become a source of pressure."
Another Columbia study, published this year, showed that students who participated in more hours of high school activities for at least two years did better after graduation than those with less or no involvement.
Co-author Jodie Roth, a senior research scientist, said that, in combination, the string of recent studies show the benefits of involvement and that "overscheduling may be an issue for a small percentage of students but even for those students, it is not detrimental compared to no participation."
For many children, activities start out as a chance to play with friends.
That is how Cort Williams explains much of his fall schedule at age 8. It includes football practice twice a week, with a Saturday game. Swim practice three times a week, with the occasional meet. Five days of school. Four nights of homework. Piano lessons.
Cort said he likes his free time, too. Still, he asked his mother recently: "What about lacrosse?"
Helen Williams glanced at the wall calendar in her Kensington home, she said, with its color-coded notations for each member of the family.
Not this season, she said. There was no more room.