Overscheduled kids, anxious parents

Editor’s Note: CNN’s Josh Levs covers top stories and hosts “Dads Do it Differently” on HLN’s “Raising America.” This column was inspired in part by his HOBY World Leadership Congress keynote talk, “Shine.”

Story highlights

Planning too many extracurricular activities for kids can stress out the whole family

Some parents worry their children will miss out if they don't participate in everything

Psychologist: Children may not experience character-building if they're spread thin

CNN  — 

Are we, as a nation, making childhood too stressful for millions of kids?

Are we cramming them into too many after-school activities without an eye toward what lessons they’ll learn about themselves?

Have we forgotten what childhood can and should be like?

These are just a few of the big existential worries that spiral out of a simple-sounding question millions of parents ask ourselves: What activities should my children be involved in?

Josh Levs

As a dad to two young boys, I’m quickly learning what so many parents already know: It’s stressful territory that involves a tough balancing act.

But recently, standing before a large crowd, I had a realization that now serves as my guidepost, and that I hope will help others.

What if your kid’s a budding prodigy?

Good parents want to help our kids learn skills, gain confidence, find interests and try new things. When they’re young, it’s easy to want to give them every opportunity.

But that’s impossible, not to mention expensive.

One of my boys has drummed to the beat since he was a baby, so I’m looking into drum lessons. The other can’t stop dancing, so maybe he’ll take dance lessons. Both love playing catch with me. Tee ball time?

The oldest, in kindergarten, chose tennis lessons. And they both love their swim lessons.

The possibilities are endless.

What if one is meant to be a pole vaulting chess prodigy, and the other’s an Olympic gymnast who paints masterpieces? How will they know if we don’t introduce them to all these things?

And so the spiraling begins, which helps lead some parents to sign our kids up for too many activities.

There are studies saying the “overscheduled child” is a “myth,” but those are about generation-wide statistics. The fact remains that some kids are kept far too busy.

“Parents need to teach their kids to balance human doing with human being,” said clinical psychologist Paula Bloom.

Kids need to know they’re not defined by what they do, she said. They need time to play, experiment, rest and figure out who they are.

“As parents, we’ve got to get over our anxiety that we’re not doing enough. Creating a sense of safety, helping kids have confidence to try certain things, those are the things that matter.”

As kids get older, they’ll show you more and more what they’re interested in, Bloom notes.

And, yes, we all make mistakes.

“As adults, your kids are going to tell their therapists, ‘Oh my parents never let me play piano,’ or some other activity. It’s going to happen. Being able to tolerate that is really important.”

League sports for little kids?

Many of my kids’ friends started soccer leagues at age 3. My wife and I asked ourselves: Do we want our boys to be the only ones without soccer skills? We want them to know they can do anything and to join the camaraderie.

But on top of their other activities, our kids have religious education one weekend morning. Soccer would mean not a single morning all week to relax at home, unstructured.

A great dad I know, a personal trainer (full disclosure: mine) who works regularly with teen athletes, is vehemently against kids entering sports leagues before they’re about age 11 or 12.

Adults are “trying to instill grown-up values and competitive nature on a kid, and they’re nowhere near that yet,” said Robert Stephens. “They’re trying to make them into world champions. That’s nuts!”

Stephens, who along with his wife raised two boys, wants kids to start playing neighborhood pickup games again.

“It teaches them how to regulate themselves, make up rules,” and fix problems, he said.

But these days, that rarely happens. And as CNN has reported, league sports are helping fill a vacuum and keep many kids active.

Your advice

In a Facebook discussion, some parents said their kids’ sports leagues are mostly about having fun.

Dawn Ladd said her 6-year-old daughter’s soccer league is “organized, but obviously not competitive.”

Still, many parents say leagues aren’t right for their little ones.

“We tried… and it was awful. What 4-year-old is ready?” asks Christina Comstock. She now limits her son’s activities to scouts and karate.

Many parents wrote that two activities at a time is their maximum. But others have seen their children thrive on busy schedules.

My colleague Jo Parker’s two children have done ballet for years. Her 12-year-old daughter goes five days a week. Cutting back might make the family’s life easier, Parker said. “But she loves it too much!”

Ultimately, it’s up to each family.

“There’s no decision tree,” said Bloom, no “perfect cocktail.”

There is, however, a critical element that often falls to the wayside: the family’s overall lifestyle.

“There are families with so much stress because all weekend they’re traveling to games. We don’t let our kids drive all the decisions in our families. They don’t have to drive extracurricular decisions,” Bloom said.

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    And many parents get so busy with kids’ activities that they let their marriages falter, she said. “Parents need to ask themselves: What are you modeling for your kid?”

    The realization

    I was standing in front of hundreds of teenagers when I realized something about raising my own kids.

    It was a keynote address to the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership (HOBY) World Leadership Congress. My message was to “be the cups and ice,” my way of saying you should chase and maximize all your opportunities to achieve dreams and to “shine” by being unique, following your instincts.

    As I looked out at these kids from all over the world who have stepped up in their communities and shown great potential, it struck me that I couldn’t care less whether they can run an 8-minute mile, play the violin, or set up a tent.

    I care that they know they can achieve anything, that they understand big rewards come from perseverance and hard work, that they treat others as they’d want to be treated.

    I care that they fill their lives with positivity, love and friendship, and take time for those things.

    I realized I had gotten caught up in the means, not the end.

    It isn’t about a search for the perfect activities. My role as a parent is to help guide my kids to that good place. And there are plenty of ways to get there.

    What do you think? Post comments below, or join the conversations at Facebook and Twitter.