Busy All the Time: Part 1: The Fallout from Over-Programming Children

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Wake up at 5:00AM.  Grind out 5,000 yards in the pool. Cram in some homework. Attend six academic classes. Sneak in lunch during biology lab. Meet for Student Government. Pump out an article for the newspaper. Lift weights. Swim another 7,000 yards. Study, study, study. Fall asleep on the breakfast room table at 11:30. Do it all over again.

This is not the schedule for the President of the United States; this was the schedule of a sixteen-year-old boy back in 1996. It was my schedule. It was miserable, but I wasn’t aware of this because it was so normal. Every kid in my community lived on the same treadmill. As a ten year old, I would attend two swim practices and two baseball practices many summer days with golf clinic mixed in.

I ran on my treadmill in the 1990’s, but the problem of child over-scheduling has grown even worse over the past twenty years. Below the problem of over-scheduled teens resides a mentality comprised of fear, obligation, and performance that robs families of precious intimate time and negatively impacts the mental health of children. The Gospel offers followers of Christ the power to lean against this cultural norm of madness and to experience freedom. For people who do not know the Gospel, this freedom may make Jesus the most attractive thing they’ve ever considered. 

Framing the Problem and Recognizing the Negative Effects on Children

The issue of over-scheduling exists predominately in suburban settings where the primary goal is gaining admittance to an upper-tier college.[i] Consequently, families pile on extracurricular activities from the basics of football, debate, piano, and track to the extras of ACT tutors, batting coaches, speed trainers, and summer scholar programs.

Parents should not feel shame for wanting to fully develop their children and encourage them to grow in their gifts. Luke remarks that Jesus grew in wisdom, stature, favor with man, and favor with God.[ii] Some commentators use this verse to categorize four areas where Jesus matured as a man: intellectual, physical, spiritual, and social. Furthermore, studies show that students who are not encouraged to pursue extracurricular activities and have little after-school supervision are some of the most likely to struggle with substance abuse.[iii] Part of a parent’s role is to help a child discover his or her gifts and to encourage the use of them for God’s glory.

But a balanced approach constitutes the exception rather than the norm. Most studies examining over-scheduled children establish 8-10 hours per week of extra-curricular activities as the baseline for inclusion in a sample set. (This number does not imply that children with this many hours of activities are being harmed but simply identifies what scholars consider a “highly active child.”) The majority of teens in my congregation exceed that number by Wednesday afternoon.

The excessive docket of activities does not come without consequence on the mental health of students. Psychologist Robert Leahy stated in a 2008 Psychology Today article  that the average adolescent demonstrates a commensurate level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950’s.[iv] Experts have identified links between problems with over-scheduled teens and insomnia, anxiety, depression, headaches, and substance abuse.[v] Shockingly, over-scheduled suburban kids demonstrate higher levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse than kids living in poverty in at-risk communities.[vi] Researchers identify a lack of family leisure time and chronic stress as the most directly contributing causes to these mental health issues.[vii]

The most revelatory statistic related to the mental health effects on children comes out of a definitive study conducted by leading experts Suniya S. Luthar and Shawn J. Latendresse and published by the National Institute of Health. Within this study, the researchers found that a critical factor in determining whether or not a child would struggle with anxiety, depression, and substance abuse as a product of over-scheduling related to the child’s perception of whether or not their parent was evaluating their performance in their activities.[viii] If the child sensed a threat of punishment or criticism for failing, then they were in jeopardy of struggling exponentially more with substance abuse, as compared to peers who felt generally supported, regardless of their performance.

Given the amount of stress children and parents experience and the joy of which they are robbed, one has to consider if the norm of over-scheduling among many American families is something that is “of the Lord.” Does Christ call us to the misery of never-ending carpools and expensive ACT prep classes? Is there a way to pursue a healthy level of extracurriculars with freedom and rest? Of what exactly are we so afraid? Are we really forming satisfied, content children? We will explore these questions in the next article: Over-scheduling and Freedom from Obligation.

 

[i] Luthar SS, Latendresse SJ. Children of the affluent: Challenges to well-being. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2005a;14:49–53.

[ii] Lk 2:52

[iii] Luthar SS, Latendresse SJ. Children of the affluent: Challenges to well-being. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2005a;14:49–53.

[iv] Leahy, Robert A. “How Big A Problem Is Anxiety” Psychology Today (April 30, 2008) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/anxiety-files/200804/how-big-problem-is-anxiety

[v] Gilbert S. For some children, it’s an after-school pressure cooker. New York Times. 1999 August 3;:F-7.

[vi] Luthar SS, Latendresse SJ. Children of the affluent: Challenges to well-being. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2005a;14:49–53.

[vii] Luthar SS, Becker BE. Privileged but pressured: A study of affluent youth. Child Development. 2002;73:1593–1610.

[viii] Extracurricular involvement among affluent youth: A scapegoat for “ubiquitous achievement pressures”?

Luthar, Suniya S.; Shoum, Karen A.; Brown, Pamela J. Developmental Psychology, Vol 42(3), May 2006, 583-597.

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