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balance for busy families

Balance for Busy Families

Posted by Karla Belzer - Parenting

With the start of the school year, many extracurricular activities have resumed. Sports, dance, theater, clubs….the list is nearly endless. With the plethora of activities that today's children are involved in, parents may find themselves rushing their children from one thing to another with barely a moment to relax and enjoy family time. Children may be so involved in other activities that school work, friendships, and free play time suffer. Too much of a good thing can leave both kids and families in a frenzy, over-scheduled, and stressed. When it comes to extracurricular activities, parents often wonder, 'how much is too much?'

Research has often touted the importance of after-school activities for children. Studies have cited multiple benefits that result from participation in extracurricular activities including improved behavior/reduced behavior problems, higher self-esteem, higher grades and more positive attitude toward school, improved social skills, and development of skills that help children become productive adults. Balancing school work and activities can also allow children an opportunity to learn and practice time management.

More recently, however, attention has been paid to the over-scheduling of extracurricular activities. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado and the University of Denver, found that children who spent more time in less structured activities had a more highly-developed, self-directed executive function area in the brain. This area of the brain controls planning, decision making, manipulating information, and switching between tasks – skills that are early indicators of school readiness and academic performance. The researchers surmised that when children are in control of how they spend their time, they are able to get more practice setting goals and figuring out what to do next. Another study found that exposing children to extracurricular activities too early can develop stress disorders in some children.

Often, the problem isn't the activities, it's too many activities. Packing evenings with activities may lead to fewer and fewer family dinners and the loss of important time and space to connect as a family. Parents may experience fatigue and burnout due to the weekly grind of driving from activity to activity. Over-scheduled children will eventually begin to show signs of being too busy. They may feel tired, anxious, or even depressed. Schoolwork may suffer and the child's grades may drop. The child may even complain of headaches or stomachaches which could be due to stress, missed meals, or a lack of sleep.

One word may help families avoid this harried pace of life: balance. Consider taking an "everything in moderation" approach to activities. While extracurricular activities have many positive benefits for children, over-scheduling can put children at risk.

Here are a few tips for bringing balance into extracurricular activities.

  1. Consider activities in moderation and in relation to your child's abilities, interests, and age. If your child is no longer interested in soccer, what's the point in running ragged to keep him involved? Give your child a voice in the activities he participates in. Allowing him to direct his activities will give you both a sense of meaning and enjoyment.
  2. Be aware of when too much is too much and step back. Carefully observe your child for signs of over-scheduling. If activities begin to interfere with your child's life, chances are they are doing too much. Decide as a family which activities can be cut back.
  3. Keep a family calendar. With family members involved in multiple activities, it is essential to know who is where and when. Create a calendar for each family member as well as a general family calendar.
  4. Create and honor family time. Eating on the run may be necessary from time to time, but it is also important to plan family dinners when you can – even if it means eating a little later than normal. Be sure to plan family fun time as well. Connecting as a family is important – even in the hectic pace of life.
  5. Stick to your priorities. School and school work should be the top priority. If school work begins to suffer as a result of activities, an activity (or two) may need to be dropped.
  6. Just say no. If your child is really excited about adding another activity to her already overloaded schedule, discuss with her what activity needs to be dropped to make room for the new activity. Consider carefully what adding another activity to the schedule would mean for the child and the family and say "no" if needed.
  7. Provide adequate downtime. Give your child (and you!) ample opportunities for relaxation and even a chance to blow off steam. Unstructured time is good for developing independence, imagination, and even just plain old playing. Remembering the importance of down time can provide everyone with rest and restoration – preparing all to take on the busy schedule!

According to Dr. Alvin Rosenfield, the leading expert on over-scheduled children, the most important thing parents can to is to "relax. Slow down. Activities are fine, but don't go over the top. Research says that what children need most are relationships, not activities. Focus on building meaningful relationships with your children, not becoming their chauffeur."

Carefully considering your child's extracurricular activities and thoughtfully providing a balanced routine will make participation enjoyable for all!

Leave a comment: what are your strategies for balancing extracurricular activities?

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