Like any well-meaning parent, Margaret "Bugs" Peterschmidt never missed an opportunity to sign her two children up for a new experience that would make them more well-rounded than they already were. "Boy Scouts? Great! Church youth group, advanced math class? Don't want to miss that!" recalls Bugs. "All the while, my husband and I are working, the kids are in school, and I'm thinking I'm doing the right thing. Within one year, I got into two little fender benders, rushing from one thing to another."
Finally, it was the kids who put on the brakes, telling their mom, "We're tired of running around."
The Peterschmidts became one of a growing number of overburdened families struggling to slow down. By scaling back their children's organized activities, they're gaining family time and downtime. Gymnastics, ballet, piano, softball, tae kwon do, and choir are good -- but in moderation, says Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, coauthor of The Over-Scheduled Child (St. Martin's Griffin, 2001). "We're buying into an overscheduled lifestyle," he says. "It's burning kids out."
And our priorities are out of whack, says Dr. William Doherty, coauthor of Putting Family First (Owl Books, 2002). "A warm and limit-setting family is the most important element for kids and that requires a lot of time, time not spent running around," he says. "Children need time to daydream, to chill out. We've reversed it all."
Today's children spend twice as much time playing structured sports as kids during the early 1980s, according to a University of Michigan national survey. Kids have 12 hours less free time a week, eat fewer family dinners, have fewer family conversations, and take fewer family vacations. Particularly overloaded are families with elementary and middle-school students who try many activities -- and need a driver. More working parents need supervised activities for their children. These activities have intensified, becoming year-round and requiring more practices, games, and travel. Plus, "parents think their neighborhoods are more dangerous, so they're less likely to have their kids just go out and play," says Doherty.
Here are ways to gauge whether your family is too busy, along with some strategies to slow down:
Start by asking: How much family time and downtime do you have? How is your child doing? Is there time to see grandparents, to be neighborly, to chat with the kids at bedtime? Do you rarely eat together? Are you constantly saying "Hurry up!"? Are tearful nights routine? How often are you "too busy"?
The key is recognizing "when it's gotten to the point where it's too much," says Doherty. Danger signs include irritable, sluggish, and headache-prone children; exhausted, stressed, and resentful parents; and family activities edged out by evening practices and away games. "Life can get too crowded and complicated, even with the best of intentions," says Bugs.
Resist pressure from other parents, coaches, or even your spouse, kids, or yourself to maintain a frenetic pace. "We bring a lot of it on ourselves by feeling that our children have to be more competent at earlier and earlier ages," says Katrina Kenison, a suburban Boston mother of sons ages 11 and 14.
Swimming against the cultural tide isn't easy. "We are the only family in our entire neighborhood that didn't do soccer," says Katrina. "It's hard to see the entire neighborhood clear out on a Saturday morning." But Katrina's family has more freedom for weekend trips, visiting grandparents, and that critical "hanging out" time many kids just aren't fitting into their schedule. "We have been able to just enjoy Saturdays rather than race around," says Katrina, whose experience inspired her book, Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry (Warner, 2000).
Somehow it became commonplace to assume kids should try everything, do everything, and be everything. "Today's parents think their job is to maximize the potential of their child in every way," says Doherty. Instead, they're turning childhood into a frantic competition -- a rat-race that looks more like an adult schedule, unless proper controls are put in place. What children really need is creativity, which comes with free time, says Rosenfeld.
"Kids need to feel that they're the authors of their lives, not that they're following a script," he says. After Katrina preserved her children's free time, her oldest son gravitated to the piano. Her other son created elaborate card games and now wants to be a game inventor. "They've had time to figure out who they are and what they like," she says. Many parents have "a lot invested in their kids' activities," she adds. She wants her children's passions to "arise from within, not from me signing them up for everything. It comes down to having faith in your kids."
Teri and Nick Galluccio of Greenwich, Connecticut, said "no" to football for their son when they realized that summer practices would rule out a family vacation. "I've tried to find activities that don't interfere with family traditions," says Teri. Don't feel guilty setting limits. But don't turn away every opportunity, or even most. Sometimes, all that's needed is for parents to see if there is "one central activity that's dominating family life, something that's a killer," says Doherty. Try to find a less intense version of that activity -- or something different that's a little less demanding of everyone's time and energy.
Of course, the kids can do some activities. While there is no hard-and-fast rule, the Peterschmidts decided on "two things per kid," assuming it was convenient for the rest of the family, says Bugs. Talk with your kids about which activities they should choose. Look at how passionate they are about certain interests. Determine how it will impact their schoolwork.
Focus on the gains, not the losses, that giving up some activities will provide. For example, with fewer scheduled obligations clogging their lives, the Peterschmidts added a new family tradition -- a monthly Sunday dinner with relatives. They were also able to get a new pet. "Now we can handle having a dog," says Bugs. Sometimes kids have an easier time letting go of an activity if they know it will create an opportunity for something new they've always wanted (such as a dog). So when you set about correcting your overscheduled lives, spend a little time up front thinking about the good things you and your kids will get out of it.
Start by adding a few more weekly family dinners. Make Sunday a "no scheduled-activity day." You can even take a sabbatical from stress for a whole summer.
"We all loved it," says Bugs, of her family's recent summer without schedules. "There was no fighting, rushing around, car accidents. My checkbook was in a better state. We had some spontaneity."
Even families that consciously slow their pace have crazy periods. "Anyone who says they have it all figured out, you have to be immediately suspicious," says Katrina. The Galluccio family still struggles to find "the right balance," says Teri. "It's not easy."
"Only a small minority of parents are really able to buck the tide themselves," says Doherty. "There has to be a community conversation and community-level change." Several grassroots efforts have begun. Rosenfeld launched the National Family Night Organization that advocates annual citywide, activity-free family nights.
In the Peterschmidts' Minnesota community of Wayzata, parents formed Putting Family First with Doherty's help. The group has awarded a seal of approval to family-friendly youth activities, sponsored parent discussions, and initiated an evening celebrating "dinner at home."
To help reinforce its anti-overload message, the group also sent a guidebook, "Family Consumer Guide to Kids' Activities," detailing time and financial commitments, to 4,600 local families. And it helped create less time-intensive sports options. "If there aren't any kids in them, the activities will change," says Doherty, who also helped organize a national awareness-raising event, "Take Back Your Time Day" last fall.
Bugs Peterschmidt was encouraged to find other parents eager to safeguard family time. But, she adds, "I'm careful about how much I talk about it. We're not playing the blame game." Cutting back was the right decision -- for her family.
"Our quality of life has so vastly improved that there's no way we're going to go back," she says.
Originally published in Better Homes & Gardens magazine, April 2004.