Every Saturday morning, my husband and I rush around the house, collecting swimsuits and leotards, before one of us hustles out the door to take our toddler to swim class. By the time that's over, we're off to take our preschooler to dance class. We then kill time at a nearby park before schlepping them off to their next activity. Yep, my kids haven't even started school yet, and they already have an events calendar that would stress out most adults. I don't know how I got us in this scenario, but I know it was with nothing but the best of intentions. I want my kids to pursue interests, gain skills, make friends, have fun . . . all of it.
"Until a healthy balance is struck, extracurricular activities will continue to take precedence over family time, potentially doing more harm than good."
However, according to a new study, published in Taylor & Francis journal Sport, Education and Society, the growing demand for children to get involved in activities outside the home is actually harmful — and not just to them, but to the entire family.
Researchers, who interviewed nearly 50 families from 12 different schools in the UK, discovered that most children — a whopping 88 percent — took part in organised activities, like music class or sports clubs, four to five days per week regardless of economic class. Like my kids, 58 percent did more than one per day. (The chart ahead shows the typical weekly extracurricular activity schedules of a subset of the studied children.)
"We know that parents are particularly keen to ensure their children get on in life," Dr. Sharon Wheeler, the study's lead author, said. "Parents initiate and facilitate their children's participation in organised activities as it shows that they are 'good' parents. They hope that such activities will benefit their children in both the short-term — by keeping them fit and healthy and helping them to develop friendship groups — and longer-term by improving their job prospects."
For most families, particularly those with more than one child, the reality is quite different. This over-involvement means less quality time together as a unit and, for the parents, less disposable income and energy.
"While children might experience some of these benefits, a busy organised activity schedule can put considerable strain on parents' resources and families' relationships, as well as potentially harm children's development and well-being," Wheeler said.
Despite growing influence from schools and fellow parents, she hopes these findings will let exhausted parents off the hook.
"Raising awareness of this issue can help those parents who feel under pressure to invest in their children's organised activities, and are concerned with the impact of such activities on their family, to have the confidence to plan a less hectic schedule for their children," she said. "Until a healthy balance is struck, extracurricular activities will continue to take precedence over family time, potentially doing more harm than good."