Kids Really Aren't Overscheduled

Little League, music lessons, scouts, and dance recitals are just a few activities that may be on your kid's agenda. Is today's typical child as overscheduled as a corporate CEO — and just as stressed?

A group of leading child development experts is challenging the popular notion that kids engage in too many organized activities, and that the pressures of overscheduling are leading to substance abuse and other developmental problems.

Rather than spending too much time participating in organized activities, most kids don't spend enough, they say. Around 40 percent don't participate in organized sports or other organized activities at all.

Joseph L. Mahoney, Ph.D., of Yale University, and his colleagues reviewed the published research and concluded that children and teens involved in organized activities tend to be better adjusted than those who are not.

Such children are apt to have better academic performance, more functional family relationships, and less substance use.

"Nearly half of children are not involved in organized activities at all," Mahoney, a child development researcher, tells WebMD. "This is of great concern, because across a wide range of outcomes, studies show that children who don't participate tend to have more adjustment problems than those who do."

Five Hours A Week

Among Mahoney's and his colleagues' major findings:

  • The average youth (aged 5-18) spends about five hours a week participating in organized activities, compared with around 15 hours watching television.
  • Only about 6 percent of adolescents aged 12-18 spend 20 hours or more a week engaged in organized activities.
  • Kids and teens tend to participate in organized activities because they want to. Pressure from parents, coaches, or other adults is seldom given as their reason for joining in.

    Busting The Myth

    There was little support for the hypothesis that kids who lack free time end up stressed out and developmentally impaired.

    Even those who spent 20 hours or more a week participating in organized activities tended to be as well-adjusted, or even better adjusted, than children who didn't participate at all, according to Mahoney.

    The findings appear in the latest issue of Social Policy Report, a journal published by the Society for Research in Child Development.

    The Overscheduled Parent

    Another child development researcher says that among affluent youth especially, the overscheduling of parents may be the bigger threat to child development.

    "Perhaps more so than the children, it is the parents who are overextended, with ongoing conflicts regarding their life roles," writes Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D., of Columbia University Teachers College.

    "On the one hand is the deep-seated desire to be the best possible parent for their children. On the other hand, there can be powerful draws from work." Luthar says.

    Luthar tells WebMD her research suggests affluent, highly educated, overextended moms are under tremendous pressure to do it all. She says most women who balance motherhood and high-stress careers end up frustrated.

    "We shouldn't have to choose between our children and our careers, but that is a choice that society forces us to make," she says.

    "The system doesn't encourage parental leave, and it gets worse the higher up the ladder you go. Flextime and job sharing aren't options for CEOs of major corporations," Luthar adds.

    Rather than discouraging kids from participating in organized activities, we should be exploring ways to engage the large number of children and teens who don't participate, Mahoney says. That means making organized activities affordable and accessible to everyone.

    "Transportation is a big problem for many families, especially when both parents work," he tells WebMD. "If these activities were affordable, and reliable and safe transportation was provided, that would cut down enormously on the stresses that many parents feel," says Mahoney.

    SOURCES: Mahoney, J. Social Policy Report, Aug. 12, 2006; Vol. XX: No. IV. Joseph L. Mahoney, Ph.D., associate professor, Yale University, New Haven, Conn. Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D., Columbia University, New York City.

    By Salynn Boyles
    Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
    © 2006, WebMD Inc. All rights reserved