The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘overscheduled’ child: Is being busy really so bad?

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Placeholder while article actions load

Tennis, soccer and track. Piano and band. Throw in the additional commitment of weekly Sunday school, and it sounds like a lot, especially to anyone who was raised to just go outside and play. But here’s what I’ve found: Even with aftercare until at least 6 p.m. every weekday, the demands of homework, regular reading, a pretty busy social calendar and a pet, there remains enough downtime in my 9-year-old daughter’s life that I still have to restrict screen time. And that’s in a household that doesn’t have many screens.

If there’s one parenting cliche more common than that of the overbooked child whose spare time is filled with sports practice, tutoring sessions and music lessons, it’s the one about the pasty kid who languishes in front of video games starved for exercise, fresh air and human contact. Considering that alternative, is being busy so bad?

Many educators, researchers as well as exasperated parents are embracing the benefits of the scheduled lifestyle, especially in this day of so much digital temptation.

“Downtime has become screen time,” argues Delaney Ruston, an internal medicine doctor and filmmaker who created “Screenagers,” a 2016 documentary that explores the challenges of parenting in a digital world. One of the main myths Ruston says her film exposes is the notion that children are overscheduled.

Of course, there is value in sitting in a corner reading, playing board games, climbing a tree or just daydreaming. But the reality is that in most homes, screens of one sort or another compete fiercely with all those unstructured activities. (You can, after all, play a video game in a treehouse.) Among the more alarming statistics, some children today spend more time looking at a screen than they do in school.

On the other hand, engaging kids in soccer, band, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts or even cotillion is a pretty sure way to sever the screen connection, at least for a few hours. And that in itself is a big benefit, even without the added advantage of physical exercise, learning an instrument or improving table manners.

Researchers have been pushing back for some time against this notion that children spend too much time in scheduled activities. A 2008 report on “The Overscheduling Myth,” from the nonprofit research group Child Trends, found that “contrary to popular belief, research rejects the notion that most or even many children and youth are over-scheduled and suffering as a result.” That report referenced a long list of benefits of scheduled activities, from higher self-esteem to lower rates of drug and alcohol use over time. It also found that children who are involved in multiple activities are usually able to maintain a balance in their lives. Typically, they still spend more time on schoolwork and other unscheduled activities such as informal games, household chores and watching television.

Today, of course, the television is the least of the worries of any parent concerned about screen time. And while individual parents may wage war against screens, too often, the screen wins. Many children carry phones and are required to do a lot of their homework in front of screens, meaning they have a constant source of distraction in front of them.

There’s a tendency among parents to beat ourselves up over our overbooked days. Even as we commit our kids to another lesson, club or sport, we are drawn to articles that ask “Are kids depressed because they don’t just play anymore?” The reality, however, is that while the “just play” model of childrearing may seem more organic and idyllic, that ship has pretty much sailed.

Ruston stresses that parents who have the time and the money to get the kids engaged in activities are the privileged ones. Now that the vast majority of all households of all income levels have some sort of Internet connection, she says the real digital divide is between those families who have technology in relative balance, often with the help of other organized activities, and those who spend too much time on screens because of a lack of alternatives.

At Alice Deal Middle School in Northwest Washington, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders can chose from about 70 different after-school activities, from choir to poetry cafe, debate and meditation. It’s a roster that Principal James Albright says is largely designed to “fill the hour between 3:30 and 4:30.”

“I feel there is a legitimate need,” he says, arguing that even a full school day leaves a lot of empty hours to be filled. “School starts late and ends early and at 3:30, a lot of kids don’t go home to parents. I want families to feel like their kids can stay after school to do something different.”

While Albright has actively encouraged schoolteachers to offer clubs, he says that he is not advocating for a highly scheduled lifestyle so much as working to ensure that children are safe, and involved in something they enjoy rather than going home to an empty house. “Idle time can be a great thing,” he concedes. “But I don’t know that we manage it well with technology.”

Most educators and researchers agree there’s no optimal number of activities; it depends on the kid. And even those who advocate for multiple activities still encourage parents to make some time for their children to just be bored. “For some children, having scheduled activities when screens are hard to resist can be hugely beneficial. But the ultimate goal should be to have a mix of activity and unscheduled downtime,” says Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. “It’s important to let kids be a little bored and see what comes out of that boredom.”

Even as I list all my daughter’s activities, I understand that many of her peers have a lot more going on. And as somebody who fully appreciates the value of downtime, I do think that it’s entirely possible for a child to be too busy. Yet in our house, even though we don’t have any video games and often can’t find the charger to the Kindle, screens do seem to find their way into that elusive downtime. Recently, I prodded my daughter to practice piano, only to discover that she was practicing piano — on my phone.

Andrea Orr is a Washington writer and mother to a 9-year-old daughter.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter.

You might also be interested in:

What to do when other parents have different technology rules

When your child doesn’t get an award

How to teach your kids to lose (and why it’s okay)