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Does Your Child Get Enough Downtime?

It happened the spring my Elsa was 6: I suddenly had an overscheduled child.

I hadn't meant to. She had started karate in January after begging for it for nearly a year and was loving the twice-weekly classes. On Fridays she had soccer practice with a coach and friends she really enjoyed. Then she was offered a space on the local swim team. I hadn't expected that she'd make it  -- Elsa seemed to like playing underwater a lot more than swimming laps  -- but the coach thought she was ready, and so did she.

Problem was, it involved at least two practices a week. Which meant that Elsa had an activity every day after school (I'd never allowed this with any of my other children). Plus: There was a soccer game every Saturday.

But when I asked her if she'd like to drop any of her activities  -- after all, it was a lot to handle for a child any age  -- she didn't. She wanted to do them all. What helped to persuade me was that they were in the late afternoon, allowing time for homework, playdates, and hanging out.

As it happened, Elsa seemed to thrive with her busy schedule. And so I let her continue. But while I went along with her wishes, I worried that she was overscheduled  -- and I watched her carefully

Any parent who's ever had to shuttle her child back and forth to soccer or ballet classes knows it's not easy to decide on the right activity-downtime balance. Determining whether your child is actually overscheduled is a tough call, especially when it can vary so much from kid to kid, family to family, and moment to moment. For one child, a single activity might be all, or more, than she can handle; another might juggle several with ease. It depends on a number of factors, including your child's age, temperament, the length of the school day, and what else is going on in his  -- and your family's  -- life. Contributing editor Claire McCarthy, M.D., writes Parenting's On Call column.

Schedule with smarts

The issue of overscheduling children is a particularly sensitive one because it's so emotionally charged  -- especially these days, when we feel intense pressure to prepare our children to perform, and when we feel they're being pushed to compete and achieve at an increasingly younger age. Maybe you worry that, if you overschedule your child, you'll deprive her of her childhood. Or that if you underschedule her, she might miss out on an opportunity to develop her potential, learn a new skill, or build her confidence.

As a pediatrician, I see firsthand how the issue's not cut-and-dried. Of course, it's never a good idea to push a child too far or too fast. Kids need time to relax, to unwind after school or daycare, to use their imagination to invent their own games. Not having that time can cause stress, and that kind of stress shouldn't be a part of childhood. Moms  -- and the whole family  -- can get stressed, too, from the scheduling, rushing, and lack of downtime together.

On the other hand, some scheduling in a child's life can be a good thing. These days, most of us need to plan and pencil in our children's after-school activities if we want them to have fun with their friends. Though there are still communities where kids can run from yard to yard for free play, safety concerns and work schedules make it unrealistic for many families. Structured activities are sometimes the only way for kids to spend regular time with one another to play and learn social skills.

And there's the exercise aspect. I'm seeing the epidemic of childhood obesity played out daily in my office. Kids' lack of exercise is a big contributor to the problem. Organized sports can be a great way to get them moving on a regular basis.

After-school activities can also help children in other ways. Musical instruction, for instance, can open up a new world. In a society in which the average child spends three hours a day watching TV, a dance or art class can be a welcome alternative. So, as with most important aspects of parenting, the issue is one of balance. From years as both a mother who's lived through these choices and a pediatrician who's watched them made well and made poorly, here are some guidelines to consider:

Choose with care
It's not fun or useful to drag a kid to an activity he doesn't like. So follow your child's lead and pick those he seems genuinely interested in. Sure, sometimes a child needs a little prodding to try out something new. For instance, when my son, Zack, was 7, he was adamant about not wanting to try out for the swim team; he was sure he wouldn't be good enough and wouldn't like it. But I persuaded him to give it a shot (he loves being in water more than being on land), and within minutes of meeting the coach and swimming a few laps during tryouts he was hooked (and is still happily swimming five years later). But I'd promised him that he didn't have to swim if he didn't like it. And that's the key. Don't be afraid to ditch an activity or sport your child doesn't enjoy.

How long should he give it a chance? It depends on your child and the circumstances. If he's obviously unhappy right away, once might be enough. Try to encourage him to stick it out for a few sessions or practices, though. Sometimes all it takes is a couple of lessons  -- even a little command of the sport or a basic understanding of the skill  -- to capture a child's interest.

And be careful not to take on more than you and your child can handle in your day. For instance, although I thought that my daughter Michaela might do well with Suzuki music training when she was 6, it was clear to me that I couldn't manage the required daily work with her on assignments. So we signed her up for traditional piano lessons instead. Consider the timing, too. Right after school might be a perfect  -- or a terrible  -- time for your child's activities. (Ask yourself: Does she come out of school looking energized or exhausted?) Activities in the late afternoon, after some downtime, might be a better choice. Then again, will they throw off dinner and evening chores? Only you can be the judge.

There are also logistics to think about. Michaela, who's 14 now, has been begging me for horseback riding lessons. But I can't work the travel time into our schedule. Plus, they're very expensive, and activities shouldn't be budget-busters. So, for now, I'm okay being Evil Momma.

Keep some perspective

This is childhood, after all  -- that time to have fun, that time we don't get back again. And most children aren't going to be the next Mozart or Mia Hamm. I cringe when I hear parents on the sidelines of games screaming at their kids when they make a mistake. I've been at swim meets where, after the race, instead of congratulating or encouraging a child, a parent will berate him for not going faster. I can't even imagine what it must be like to be publicly humiliated at the age of 6. It's heartbreaking.

Some kids are going to be the next Mozart or Mia Hamm. But my limited experience with such children is that encouragement and opportunity  -- not pressure  -- is what they need. I knew a very talented boy who quit his team sport, and I'm certain that his parents' ceaseless insistence on his working harder and performing faster had something to do with it.

On the other hand, I have a 12-year-old patient, a ballet dancer, whose teacher has told her parents that she has real potential. What always strikes me when I see her and her mother is how happy and proud they are. The girl dances because she loves it. Her parents don't push her; they just make it possible.

Watch for signs of stress
Since every child's different when it comes to what will upset her, it's important to be watchful. An overscheduled child may be moody, or clingier than usual. She may have trouble sleeping, or experience a dip  -- or an increase  -- in her appetite. She may also lose interest in the activities she usually enjoys, or start to struggle in school.

If you see any of these changes in your child, talk to her right away. Let her know that the most important thing to you is that she's happy. Spend some time trying to figure out with her what exactly is upsetting her, and change it.

Sometimes, when you do some probing, kids surprise you. Recently, Elsa was clearly concerned about an upcoming swim meet. So I started to question if the team was a good idea for her, and we sat down to talk about it. Turns out, all she was worried about was that she wouldn't know where the bathrooms were. Once I reassured her that we'd find them as soon as we got to the pool, she was fine.

At other times, your child might not be able to express what's bothering her, so you'll have to use your best judgment. A mom friend of mine told me that while her daughter loved swimming and enjoyed being with her friends, the rush to get her homework done and dinner eaten before practice seemed to make her anxious. So the following year her mom suggested that they take a year off; her daughter not only agreed, but seemed relieved. Clearly, mom's instincts were right-on.

Watch for signs of family stress, too. The preparation, transportation, scheduling, and juggling with the rest of daily life is your job  -- and sometimes it can be too much. If you're finding yourself in a bad mood all the time because your afternoons are largely spent in the car (and your younger child's cranky about spending all her time there, too), if family dinners are becoming a distant memory, if you feel like you need a personal assistant simply to keep your child's schedule organized, or if homework or reading time is getting lost in the shuffle, it might be time to rethink the activities schedule.

Rethinking may mean quitting something. Or that you need to create a compromise. For instance, in our family, our various schedules make nightly meals together for all six of us impossible. But we have a family dinner every Monday night (with a family meeting) and one every weekend. On the other nights, my husband and I make sure that one of us is sitting with the kids as they eat (sometimes in shifts) and paying attention to them.

Be flexible, and reevaluate frequently

Some days you just have to stay home and play checkers instead of going to soccer practice. We all  -- kids and grown-ups included  -- have those days: When nothing went right at school, when your child is tired and grumpy, and so are you, and you can tell that practice is going to make everything worse. Of course, your child can't go skipping every other practice to goof off at home. But when activities rule over his well-being, that's not good, either. His happiness is more important than any given activity on any given day-and he needs to know that.

Sometimes a child's enthusiasm for an activity can dwindle. And that's okay, too. Zachary loved piano lessons for the first couple of years, but then he began to complain a lot about practicing. The third year of lessons was no fun for anyone, and soon we'd all decided he needed to quit.

My husband and I let him know we were proud of him for all he'd learned, and that he could go back to lessons if he ever wanted to. It's good to remember that not every endeavor ends up being a lifelong activity, and that's okay. That's what trying different things is about; make sure you've said as much to your child.

Of course, in other cases, it isn't the child who needs to back out, but the family. Life is fluid and ever-changing and won't allow for all activities all the time, and every child needs to learn this  -- whether you might have new hours at work, Grandpa's ill and needs extra afternoon visits, or a newborn sibling has to nurse every hour.

In the meantime, you can cook up some fun activities at home  -- such as writing a storybook, learning how to bake, or just snuggling together to read a book. Carving out special time with your child will let him know that, while he's part of a bigger whole and needs to compromise sometimes, how he spends his time is important to you.

Turns out, Elsa did fine with her busy schedule. On weekends, we made a special trip to the ice-cream store for a cone to celebrate finishing another activity-packed week; I was proud of her, I told her each time, for working so hard. And as she beamed back at me, her face covered with chocolate, I could tell she was very proud, too.

The next fall, she happily started all three sports again. But when I asked her if she wanted to try piano lessons, she said no. I asked her why. "Because I would be too busy," she said. That was all I needed to hear.