Frenzied Families

In our competitive society, it’s tempting to provide children with extracurricular activities at the expense of family time.

As Rhonda Parker approached the playground, she was happy to see another woman at the swing set. Her child seemed to be about the same age as Rhonda’s daughter, Emily. Rhonda began pushing Emily on the swing and smiled at the other girl’s mother.

The other woman looked at Emily appraisingly, then asked, “How old is she?”

She just turned four,” Rhonda replied.

What preschool do you have her in?”

She doesn’t go to preschool,” Rhonda answered hesitantly.

Music lessons, then? Or dance?”

Well, no.” Rhonda was getting uncomfortable now.

Lauren has preschool Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings,” said the other mother. “That leaves Tuesday and Thursday mornings for her swim lessons. Then Monday afternoons she has ballet class, Wednesday afternoons she has piano lessons, and on Thursday afternoons she has reading club at the library. I can barely keep up with her schedule, but it’s worth it.” After a pause she added, “Aren’t you worried that your daughter will get behind?”

Get behind?” Rhonda repeated incredulously. Even though she’d only given Emily a few pushes on the swing, she had lost the urge to chat. Rhonda excused herself, then grabbed Emily’s hand and headed over to the slides, feeling somewhat annoyed at this mother’s competitive attitude, and a little unsettled at the same time. Could she be allowing her daughter to fall behind by not involving her in all those outside activities?

Many parents today find themselves confronted with the same question. They worry that if they’re not hauling their children to an endless array of structured activities, the youngsters will miss out or be left behind. On the other hand, if they do decide to get on the activities fast track, mother and father may start to feel like chauffeurs rather than parents.

Of course, just a generation ago, these were hardly major issues for parents. When we were growing up, most of us who are parents now probably spent our afternoons and weekends riding bicycles around the neighborhood with our friends, playing games in vacant lots, climbing trees, jumping rope or playing hopscotch—just having our own informal fun.

Today, parents have their kids involved in any number of activities, from dance lessons, computer instruction, junior theater, nature camp and art classes, to soccer, tee ball, gymnastics and hockey. They start enrolling them when they’re preschoolers and keep them busy all the way through high school.

The pace of life has picked up, and it’s coming out of family time and time for kids to just hang out and be kids,” notes William J. Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of Take Back Your Kids (Sorin Books, 2000). Weekends used to be a time for families to just kick back and relax together, he says. “Now parents are busy all weekend shuffling their kids to all the different sporting events they’re involved with. That’s in addition to running errands or catching up on housework that didn’t get done during the week since both parents are often working full-time jobs.”

According to a 2001 study conducted by the University of Minnesota, there has been a decline of 12 hours per week in American children’s free time over the past 20 years. During the same 20-year period, conversations between family members in a household decreased by 50 percent, the study says.

Pressured Parents

Most parents readily admit that constantly running from one event or activity to the next isn’t a lot of fun. So why would they opt for this type of lifestyle for themselves and their children? Alvin Rosenfeld, a medical doctor and author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), believes that most often it’s a matter of parents feeling societal and parental peer pressure to provide more opportunities for their children. “They see everyone else’s kids involved in a lot of different activities and that just seems to be the thing to do,” he says.

Nowadays, parents think that filling their children’s discretionary time with “enriching” opportunities is essential to being a good parent.

Nowadays, parents think that filling their children’s discretionary time with “enriching” opportunities is essential to being a good parent, Doherty says. “We have higher expectations today of what our children should be experiencing, what they should be learning, and what they should be doing.” He adds, “Previous generations had much more of a sense that, other than the time spent in school and church, kids do best just playing together on their own. But now we tend to see children more as bundles of creative potential. And so parents enroll their children in all kinds of structured activities in order to maximize that potential.”

It may start out with parents simply wanting to provide their children with a new experience, so they sign them up for a class of some kind. But soon, one or two classes turns into three or four. It’s not long before parents become overwhelmed with all the places they have to take their kids on weeknights and weekends. Not only that, but they often find themselves in a competition with each other, competing to have the child who’s the fastest athlete, the best artist, the earliest reader, the most talented musician, etc.

We live in a very competitive society,” Doherty remarks. “If we see somebody like a Mary Lou Retton compete in the Olympics, for example, then everybody gets the idea that ‘if I get my daughter into gymnastics at age six maybe she can be that good.’ And so we push and push our kids to do more and more.”

Parents may either subconsciously or consciously try to create “trophy kids” as a way to show off to other parents, according to Rosenfeld. “It’s keeping up with the Joneses, only with your children rather than with possessions,” he says.

Even if parents are not particularly competitive themselves, Doherty adds, “they’re still going to notice that all the other five-year-olds are already mastering soccer kicks and judo moves, and they can feel like they’re letting their own child down by not exposing him or her to these things.”

Life in the Fast Lane

Another part of the equation is that parents themselves are much busier today than parents of previous generations. In many households, both mother and father have full-time jobs, commute an hour or more each way to work, and as a result may be away from home 10 hours a day.

When both parents work outside the home, they need somewhere to send their kids during those after-school and vacation hours, and that often means signing them up for organized after-school activities and summer day camps,” notes Susan K. Mackey, a clinical psychologist with the Family Institute at Northwestern University.

But not only are both parents working, they’re also devoting more time to earning a living. Mackey believes this is due to concerns people have that if they don’t put in long hours, they may lose their job. “Nowadays there’s this pressure that if you don’t work 50 to 60 hours a week, you will get laid off if your company is downsized,” she remarks. She contrasts this to the 1950s, when people were pretty much guaranteed to keep their jobs if they were loyal employees and put in 40 hours a week. But that’s not the case anymore. Working overtime and weekends, and being on call 24 hours a day, is standard for employees at many companies.

The Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., has done updated estimates of hours worked annually, including by parents. According to their 2001 study, while a middle-class, married-couple family’s income grew 9.2 percent from 1989 to 1998, a substantial part of this growth reflected an increase in work hours, up 246 hours or about six extra weeks of full-time work per family each year.

As parents become busier, this spills over into their kids’ lives. So if a mother doesn’t get home from work each day until 6 p.m., her children are likely to find themselves in an after-school program. If both parents are working 40 or 50 hours a week, what might otherwise be downtime during the evenings and weekends is now taken up with housework, grocery shopping and other errands. On top of that, parents may have to make time for their children’s recitals, soccer matches, baseball games and other functions on weeknights or weekends. The result is a rushed, hurried lifestyle for everyone in the family.

It just seems to have gotten into our culture that we have to be busy, busy, busy all the time.”

Susan K. Mackey, a clinical psychologist with the Family Institute at Northwestern University

But even in more “traditional” family situations where one parent is home, life is still more hectic nowadays than it was in the past. “It just seems to have gotten into our culture that we have to be busy, busy, busy all the time,” Mackey says. Many women who choose to stay home with their preschool-aged children are never home more than a couple of hours at a time during the day, because they’re always having to drop their children off or pick them up from one class or another.

Quality Time?

Obviously parents need to earn a living, and that may mean working late on occasion or taking a night class now and then. And certainly some outside activities can be very valuable and rewarding for children. The problem is when people overbook their schedules to the point that they’re always rushing somewhere.

Too many outside activities can cut into family time, which for many families is already scarce. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that since 1960, kids have, on average, 10 fewer hours of parental time per week—primarily because both parents work and are working longer hours. Even when parents and children are home together, parents often feel so tired and stressed that they don’t have any emotional or physical energy left for their children.

Once family members jump onto the fast track, life at home may never be the same. Everyone in the family, kids and parents alike, can get tired of constantly being on the run. Often the only interaction parents and kids have is in the car on the way to the next class or sporting event, and that usually goes along the line of “Did you remember your backpack?”; “Oh, we’re going to be late!”; “What time did you say I need to pick you up?” It’s hardly the kind of conversation that could be classified as quality time.

I think everybody feels rushed today, which makes free time all the more precious,” Rosenfeld says. “It should make you think twice about how you use your off time. You could spend it hauling your child from one activity to the next, or you could have some one-on-one time with your child, even just doing everyday things at home like cooking dinner or playing a board game together.” He adds that while kids certainly appreciate having their parents sitting in the bleachers, attending your child’s sporting events can’t be counted as family time. “It’s really parenting from the sidelines,” he says.

Not enough family time can mean that children are missing the stabilizing, character-shaping influence of their parents. “It can get to the point that parents seem to know little about their children’s lives, and the influence of peers and the media may be outweighing the influence of parents,” says Isabelle Fox, a family counselor and author of Being There: The Benefits of a Stay-at-Home Parent (Barron’s, 1996).

This is a real danger if parents are workaholics or too focused on competing via their kids’ pursuits. They can inadvertently send the wrong message to their children about what’s really important in life. “The message kids often get is that materialism is more important than true values,” says Frank Vitro, psychology professor at Texas Woman’s University. “Kids can get the idea that succeeding in your career is all that matters and that family relationships take a backseat.”

While all kids need family time, Doherty contends that it is most critical for children at elementary age and younger. “At this age especially, the focus should be on spending time with Mom and Dad rather than on outside activities,” he says. “If you don’t spend regular time with your children when they’re young, how are you going to influence them when they’re teenagers and you’re telling them not to smoke or do drugs? Why would they stop and listen to you if you haven’t built a strong connection with them when they were younger?”

Finally, Doherty says, “It’s important to remind yourself that your kids are never going to be young again. Once this time is gone, you can never regain it. We ought to enjoy them for the brief flicker of time we have with them.”