Extracurricular Activities: How Much is Too Much?

It's natural to want your children to get along with their peers, to perform well in school, and to excel in the arts, science, or sports. As a caring parent, you want the best for your children.

Because today's school and work environments can be competitive, it's reasonable to think that getting your children involved in extracurricular activities could help them to keep pace with their peers and prepare them to succeed in adult work and social worlds.

Are You Pushing Your Kids Too Hard?

Even with school budget cuts, there are a wide range of extracurricular activities that children, including pre-kindergarteners, could participate in. There's summer camp, soccer, music, modeling, acting, computer programming and dance, to name a few. If you're not careful, you could push your children to take on too many activities and cause them to feel out of balance.

Family physician, Dr. George Shannon, shares in Everyday Health that "There's definitely less informal play these days."

Enmeshment, or identifying too strongly with your child and making him or her a surrogate, may be why some parents push their children. Judi Brown Clark, a former Olympic medalist, says the following about parental enmeshment and driving children too hard:

"I sometimes find that it's not the parents who have had success [who drive children too hard], but the parent who had a frustrating career and vicariously see their child as their second chance."

As reported in ABC News, Clarke goes on to say that, "They see it as a personal accomplishment instead of the child's accomplishment."

Pushing your kids to get involved in extracurricular activities too soon or encouraging kids to take on too much could have negative consequences. Similar to adults, these could result in your children feeling heightened levels of stress, being overly impatient, and feeling the constant pressure to outperform their last achievement.

According to Dr. Shannon, children respond to pressure differently. He says:

"When our plates are too full, we might be short-tempered; we feel rushed. I've seen some kids who are tremendous over-achievers. Some kids can handle it and others can't."

It helps to remember that your children are also trying to make friends and fit in at school and in the community. That alone can prove stressful for some children.

Children who take on too much, too soon can also become anxious, fatigued (the type of fatigue that goes on for hours or days), easily irritated and depressed. It's not uncommon for parents to schedule an appointment with a pediatrician or family physician after a child starts to complain of headaches, stomach pain or insomnia related to this stress.

After giving a child a physical examination, some doctors are recommending that the child be taken to a psychologist. Why? Stressful schedules can cause children to experience adult-like anxiety and depression symptoms. On the other hand, you might believe that keeping your children busy shows that you care. This might be a reason why child psychiatrist, Dr. Alvin Rosenfield shares in Psychology Today that, "Overscheduling our children is not only a widespread phenomenon, it's how we parent today."

As if that's not enough, Dr. Rosenfield states that, "Children are under pressure to achieve, to be competitive. I know sixth-graders who are already working on their résumés so they'll have an edge when they apply for college."

When this happens, your children don't have enough time to relax and have fun, playing with siblings and/or friends without feeling like they have to perform or achieve a set goal. Creating a packed schedule can make your children feel as if they are constantly being rushed and watched.

The Benefits to Being Involved

Yet, all is not lost when children get involved in outside activities. For starters, by attending summer camp, joining a kids' sports league, or participating in a science club, your children could make new friends. They could also learn new skills, strengthen their social communication, and build their self-confidence. Being active in a sports league or science or arts club also gives your children opportunities to learn about different cultures.

Because some colleges review students' community activities, getting teens involved in extracurricular activities could boost your children's chances of getting accepted by a respectable college or university. Improved health, a more robust metabolism, learning how to follow directions, appreciating teamwork, and finding solutions to challenges are other advantages gained from participating in outside activities.

The Road to a Healthy Balance

You could lower the chances that your children are taking on too many extracurricular activities if you allow your children to approach you and ask for permission to take on more. Together, you can evaluate whether this might become too overwhelming.

Once your children take on additional activities, avoid putting pressure on them to outperform other kids. For example, you could cheer your daughter on as she plays softball without shouting at her to "hit the ball so hard that the pitcher regrets throwing you the ball."

Other steps you could take to reduce the likelihood of getting your children involved in extracurricular activities too soon (or too often) require that you and your children work together. These steps include:

  • Enrolling your children in age appropriate activities (organized school activities generally have minimum participation ages)

  • Scheduling your children for a full physical examination before they start engaging in sports

  • Volunteering at school events. This can help you and your child make connections with other community members on a more sporadic basis.

  • Monitoring your children's grades (a drop in grades could signal that your children are feeling too much pressure)

  • Choosing activities that require members to meet a few times a month rather than several times a week

  • Spending the same amount of time having fun and reviewing homework as you do attending outside activities your children participate in

  • Considering events that can help your children build the skills that will aid them in the short and long-term

  • Asking your children why they want to get involved in certain activities, and consistently asking your children if they still want to continue doing those activities, especially as they take on advanced school courses or additional responsibilities

  • Listening to what your children are asking for, and avoiding putting pressure on them to take on activities they don’t want to do

  • Steering clear of comparing yourself or your children to other parents/kids

It's a good idea to limit the number of activities that your children participate in one to two activities at a time. Also, make sure that adults working with your children are licensed, certified and safe. This applies to facilities that your children frequent as well. You want to ensure that the facilities are secure, clean, and built to support all children.

Sources:

Elkins, D. (2003, January 1). Are We Pushing Our Kids Too Hard. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from Psychology Today

James, S. (2012, July 31). Five-Ring Fever: When Olympic Parents Push Their Kids Too Hard. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from ABC News

Yofee, L. (2009, February 4). Balancing School With Extracurricular Activities. . Retrieved May 22, 2014, from Everyday Health