New school year can mean scheduling anxiety for parents; tips on keeping things sane


Shannon Conner keeps a 2-foot-by-3-foot calendar on the wall and also carries a Palm, just to make sure she knows which of her six kids belongs at which activity.

The Indianapolis mom used to have a rule: Choose one sport and one non-sport a season. But then her 10-year-old daughter, Grace, wanted to do so much. Grace's schedule now goes like this: swim team, kickball, basketball, volleyball, student council and Girl Scouts. Every day an activity. And Conner, who has said no to still other activities, worries: Is it too much?

A new school year means it's time for parents to schedule afterschool and weekend activities again. They've heard the experts: Children need some unstructured time to make up their own games, find their own friends and problem solve.

"Children need down time to relax and decompress, just like adults," says Paul Donahue, a child psychologist in Scarsdale, N.Y. "They also need time to just explore, play on their own and use their imagination."

Yet the pressure to schedule -- and overschedule -- remains strong. Will your child fall behind if she doesn't take soccer or ballet with her friends? Could you have the world's next piano prodigy if only you give him the right lessons now? And anyhow, who doesn't want the kids doing something safe and supervised when mom and dad aren't around?

For parents contemplating which -- and how many -- activities to sign their children up for this fall, some guidelines from the pros:

Say no first, unless there's a good reason to say yes.

That's the advice of William Doherty, a University of Minnesota professor who co-founded Putting Family First, an organization that raises awareness of overscheduled kids.

Parenting has become a form of competition, he says. "Parents are more worried that the children are not keeping up." Of course, a lot depends on each child. In Conner's case, it's Grace who's pushing her to say yes.

"When you have a kid that wants to do something, it's hard. You have to set boundaries with that child," Conner says. "She sees the (enrollment) forms and she wants to know when we're turning them in."

The camps, sports leagues and other activities keep sending the forms to maintain or grow their enrollment numbers.

"Once you've done something, it's like you're in that loop. They market to the overscheduled child," Conner says. "We're on the sucker list."

What's the rush?

The choices for babies as young as 6 months can include music, tumbling, dance, Spanish and sign language, but the best reason for enrolling might be just to give mom or dad a chance to get out of the house.

Even preschoolers don't really need any structured activity, according to Doherty.

"You're not actually doing them any good beyond just playing. You have to ask yourself, why do it? It's social comparison," he said.

In sports, forget teaching technique or proper form until a child is at least 8, according to Brooke de Lench, editor of the site

What if a child is particularly good at a sport? Playing something intensively from age 4 or 5 often makes the child want to drop out later and try something different, she says.

Donahue, author of the new book "Parenting Without Fear" (August, St. Martin's Press), agrees: Specializing too young can make the sport feel like a job, he says.

He suggests limiting activities to one or two a season when children are under 8. Older kids often have two or three activities going, but he suggests keeping at least one or two days a week open.

Make time for family and play

Look at sports and activities as part of a pyramid, Doherty suggests: The base is lots of family time, then unstructured play with other kids, then playing on their own, and only then organized activities.

"The problem is when those structured activities come at the price of family time, like meals together, time to hang out as a family," he says.

Little kids, especially, may need more time between activities.

Kimm Ellis, of Indio, Calif., signed her son Cabot, then 2, up for a 7 a.m. swim class twice a week before preschool. For about seven months, he loved it.

Then he started crying and screaming in the car.

"I think he was overscheduled. It was just bad timing," says Ellis, who pulled Cabot out of swimming.

"He's much happier," she says.