John Severson has the kind of super-charged kids that make you marvel: his high school junior juggles music, cross-country skiing, debate, and a job while fitting in homework for his advanced-placement courses and time with friends. John's other son checks his planner to see if he should be at soccer or scouts, whether he should be studying, or if he's free to just hang out. He's 13 years old, but he's on top of his schedule.
Most kids like these aren't just born that way. As kids finish up the summer day-camp circuit and head back to school, parents like Severson are gearing up to help their children balance the stresses of homework and music, drama and sports, volunteering, church activities—and whatever free time they can find.
"The difference between successful and unsuccessful people, a lot of times, is their ability to manage time," says Severson, who is a chemistry teacher in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. "Fundamentally, it's a learned skill."
Gloria Frender, an educational consultant from Boulder, Colorado, develops and teaches practical, hands-on ways to help kids and their families cope with schedules that can be overwhelming.
Frender and other organizational experts agree: Kids learn what they see. So if you come in and throw the mail wherever, drop your coat over a chair, and toss your keys on the table, only to search in vain for them two hours later, it shouldn't be any surprise that your daughter can't find her shoes when it's time to leave the house.
"If you're running around crazy and hectic, your kids aren't going to learn anything but that," says Stephany Smith Gonzer, a professional organizer in California. As a parent, you need to decide what kind of household you want to have, and then make that happen. If you need to take a class or hire an organizer to get your own life on track, consider this: Your whole family will be better for it in the long run.
Even toddlers can start learning how to manage their time. Make it into a game: "Can you finish getting those blocks into the box by the time your favorite song is over?"
As kids get older, they begin to understand time constraints. They can't be at two birthday parties at once. Prompt them about their options: "Do you want to leave one party early to get to the other, or just pick one?" or "We have time for either Boy Scouts or soccer."
Starting as early as first or second grade, Frender says, every child should have a calendar. The calendar should be big enough that you—or your child, once he or she is old enough—can write in all the things that need to be done.
Frender suggests color-coding your child's to-do list: Every school subject and every activity should have its own color, and these colors should be prominent on everything, including the calendar, the folders and notebooks for school, and other organizing paraphernalia.
So, for example, if soccer is blue, then the dates of games and practices are blue, and so is the bag where your child keeps shin guards, balls, and uniforms. If science is green, then projects due are in green on the calendar and homework goes into the green folder. With this method, kids see what's coming at them, and they can find comfort in the order.
Organizers believe that everything should have its place, and everyone in the household should have their own space for coats, keys, backpacks, briefcases, and shoes. You can help your kids tackle the ever-challenging room cleaning task by helping to organize the room: A big basket for stuffed animals, a shoe tree for shoes, a box for art supplies, and another for blocks.
What about all that clutter that defies definition? Get a clutter box. Just don't make it too big. And label everything else in bright, bold colors.
There's no formula to know just how many activities a child should be involved in. But remember to take stock of your child's cues.
Overbooked kids are a real danger in a society where work is taking on more and more importance in adults' lives, says Benjamin Hunnicutt, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa.
Kids are seeing that work is sapping the energy that used to go into family and community. As adults' lives have become more scheduled and more frenetic, Hunnicutt fears that children are being expected to keep up with this pace earlier and earlier. More and more, he says, life means work for kids, whether it's an actual job or just the work of keeping up with their schedules.
"In that regard, it seems that children are losing their childhood—that opportunity to play, time spent outside of scheduled activity," says Hunnicutt.
"Certain things should be managed and organized, other things should not be," says Frender. She suggests that you sit with your child and create a graph: days of the week running vertically, and an hour-by-hour look at the day running across the top.
Fill in all the hours that are scheduled with things that have to be done: homework (Frender recommends a consistent time every day for five days a week), sports, music, family obligations, school time, mealtimes, everything.
When the week is filled in, your kids will be able to see, in a physical way, where their time goes and where they have openings. Together, you can then block out free time for being with friends and other unstructured activities.
"When you sit down and look at all those blocks," Frender says, "you can see exactly what it is that their kids are trying to cope with. Kids need time to crash, to relax. Be sure to leave time for daydreaming."
Frender says that one key to forming a habit in a child is to reward the expected behavior. For example, if your third-grader comes home from school, looks at his calendar, and sees he's supposed to be studying—and does study for five days in a row—reward him. And when it comes to rewards, Frender says, kids don't really want our money.
"The most important thing you can give kids is time," she says. "Tell your kids, 'We'll go on that extra hike together,' or 'We'll play an extra game of Monopoly.'"
As you test out new organizational plans around the house, remember to be happy when you see small steps in the right direction. It's part of the job description of a parent to have to repeat things several hundred times before a habit is formed. "I have a tremendous amount of patience with my clients," says Julie Signore, a professional organizer from Maui, "because I know that they're not going to get it right away. A parent needs to help, in a jovial way, keep the child on track. Don't hammer on them. It's always asking a question, not making a demand. Keep in mind that your child is learning a new task and he or she isn't going to get it right away. Ask them what they need help with and they will tell you."