by Avital Nathman
“Hustle! We have to hustle!”
I find myself using these words more often - and with more gusto - than I ever thought I would. But apparently, that’s what happens when, in addition to a full day of school, you find yourself shuttling your son to swim lessons (Monday), circus class (Thursday) and soccer (Saturday). While I’m still struggling with how to manage it all, for some of my son’s friends and classmates (and their families), this constitutes a light load.
It wasn’t always this way. Last fall, when my son was in half-day preschool, we didn’t have any activities scheduled outside of school. On the playground after pick up, I would listen in as other mothers went over the tightly packed schedules of their own kids: cello, swim, ballet, gymnastics, Capoeira, Kung-Fu, yoga, piano... the list went on and on, and frankly - it made my head spin. I felt a mix between being smugly satisfied that I wasn’t the one rushing around, carting my kid to multiple activities throughout the week to feeling that I had somehow dropped the “good parenting” ball by not signing my son up for anything.
So this year, along with starting a brand new, full-day kindergarten, I asked my son if he’d like to sign up for any activities. In the end we went with the aforementioned ones - all his choices - and so far, so great. He truly loves each and every activity, and despite all the rushing and hustling we’ve had to do and the slight rearranging of our schedules, it feels like it’s worth it... right?
Thankfully, I’m not alone in my wondering. Having spoken with parents across the country, it seems like many are in the same boat. In a society that is already about doing as much as you can as fast as you can, are we over-scheduling our kids when it comes to after-school activities?
“This is an issue for almost every family I know,” says mom of two, Naomi Shulman. “My kids have a tendency to have eyes bigger than their stomachs when it comes to after-school activities. They want to do it all -- and I get it, because it all sounds enticing -- but then they don't have enough time to chill out.”
Between her two daughters, ages 8 and 11, Shulman finds herself at five different after school activities during the week, from swim lessons to writing workshops. Yet, she also makes sure that the girls - and the entire family - has at least one weekday with nothing scheduled: “In our case it's Friday (Shabbat), and that works out well because the girls rarely have homework, and they can ease into a leisurely weekend.”
Shulman isn’t the only mother who feels that leisure time is important. Kindergarten teacher Amy Meltzer limits the amount of after-school activities her two daughters (ages 7 & 9) participate in, in favor of less structured, more creative-based play. Meltzer explains, “...My kids love imaginative play and can sustain it for hours and hours. I don't believe there is anything more valuable they can be doing with their time. I'm keenly aware that someday soon they will outgrow this, so I want to give them as much time as possible to just, well, play.” While Meltzer does expose her daughters to things that interest them, she’s not rushing to sign them up for activities that will take up both time and money.
Father of two, Matt Schneider, shares Meltzer’s outlook when it comes to his sons’ time, saying that he and his wife “feel very strongly about them having time to relax and play.” This meant scaling back on activities for Schneider’s eldest son this year once school started. Last year seven-year-old Max had swimming, soccer league, little league, and violin, and it was hard for the family to keep up with it all. They dropped everything except for the soccer league, and so far it’s been working out well, yet Schneider is open to adding in more activities if it works for everyone: “My intention is if he’s on board and excited about the other activities, we’ll get back to that stuff, but right now we’re under-scheduled and it’s glorious.”
Meghan Hamilton, a private music teacher, has her own thoughts on the way we schedule our children’s time. With over twenty years experience teaching children, Meghan has seen it all, from kids with only a couple activities on their plate who are alert and able to keep up with the practicing involved with learning an instrument, to those stretched too thin to get anything out of their music lessons.
Hamilton notes that the majority of students she’s had that have been signed up for three or more activities at a time not only do poorly in her classes, but also with their academics. Many of these kids are too tired to pay attention in either school or elsewhere, and to her, it’s just not worth it. “More activity is not helping our children. I don't need your $25 or $50 at the expense of your child's sanity. It makes them feel more defeated to do a lot of things badly than to do a few things well.”
Despite this critique of overscheduling, Hamilton notes that those who stick to one or two activities will usually flourish and actually enjoy the activities they’ve chosen - a sentiment that veteran mom, Lori Day, can vouch for.
Day, whose daughter Charlotte is now twenty and a junior at Mount Holyoke College, limited afterschool activities to two per week and felt that her daughter not only appreciated that limit, but thrived under it. While Day admits that some of Charlotte’s current success is most likely due to personality, she feels that her choices played some role in it, and does not regret them. “Looking back, I would not change a thing. We all had a lot of nice family time together, it was peaceful, we had a family dinner together every night (which I consider very important), we hiked a lot, we took lots of trips, especially abroad. Basically, we created our own enrichment opportunities for Charlotte to a large extent. This is also where we put our discretionary money—travel over extracurricular activities. I looked around at so many stressed-out parents and stressed-out kids and knew that, although sometimes I felt we were “different,” it was a good thing, for all of us. I was relieved we made the choices we did.”
The one thing that stood out as I spoke with a variety of parents is that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to scheduling after-school activities. What works for one child and family may not work for another, and the majority of parents who shared their stories noted that it took a few tries and a handful of various schedules to eventually find the right fit for them. When trying to find the right fit for your family, don’t be afraid to test out a few different activities (although not all at once!) to see what works best for everyone, and to check in once in awhile with your kids to ensure that not only are they still enjoying it, but that the activities aren’t impeding success in other aspects of their lives.
For us, we have found a happy and healthy balance that works for us. I’m thrilled with the skills my son is learning, and it’s a joy for both of us to see him work toward meeting certain goals in all three of his activities. At the same time, I make sure keep a dialogue going so everyone is on the same page and happy with the choices made.
A former teacher and lifetime learner, Avital Norman Nathman is a play-at-home mama, freelance writer, wife and feminist (and not necessarily in that order). When not gardening, cooking or dancing around the house, you can catch her musing about motherhood and feminism at www.TheMamafesto.com