Finally, Lee sees a particular danger for children who are struggling with learning disorders or behavioral issues. “Some children who have learning disorders don’t always have the best judgment when making choices” about commitments, she says. That, and the time needed for educational and other interventions, can lead to children being “overscheduled for specialists and for activities.” Her advice is to come up with a plan. “It’s important for parents first of all to set boundaries.”
How to set the boundaries? First, understand that organized group activities aren’t the be-all and end-all of developmentally appropriate extracurriculars. And think ahead about what schedule might work for each individual kid.
The opportunities to socialize and gain competency are a great thing about extracurricular activities, Cortese says. But parents shouldn’t forget that children can also benefit from self-directed activities, albeit in structured blocks of time. In other words, don’t forget that in the mythical American pastoral of our past there was time for solitary introspection and experiment alongside autumn games of touch football. “Sometimes there’s not enough emphasis put on the importance of independent work time,” she says, “and giving kids the time and the place to think for themselves, be creative, and access their own internal resources.”
Lee understands that parents and kids alike get excited about the bonanza of possible activities without thinking critically about the whole picture. “A lot of people see a list of all the great things that are being offered,” she says, “and they sign up for everything and then they realize it’s so unrealistic with their time constraints and all the schoolwork that they have.” That’s not good—as Dr. Newman notes, it’s no fun for kids “to have so many things that they have to drop out.”
On the flip side, parents should realize the value of keeping children “busy to the point of getting into a routine that works well,” Lee says. And this is particularly good for kids who work better with a lot of structure, “especially kids who have learning disabilities.”
Is there a hard and fast answer? And how many activities are too many? “Seven,” jokes Jerry Bubrick, Ph.D., senior director of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. But really, it’s too much when after-school activities start interfering with a child’s life. Dr. Bubrick notes that in the case of intensive commitments like sports or theater, even one activity can be too much. “These kids just disappear,” he says, which is unfortunate because these are also “great experiences.”
Dr. Bubrick has a pretty simple calculus for how much is too much: “Can you still do your homework? Can you still get 8 or more hours of sleep each night? Can you still be a part of your family? Can you still hang out with your friends? If the answer is ‘no’ to one or more of these, then it’s too much.” He suggests that sometimes multiple but less time-consuming activities can reduce the strain on a kid’s life while still conferring the benefits of extracurricular activities.
One thing that all five experts agree on pertains to the first move: yours? Nope: your child’s.
“Kids come to us with different predispositions,” Cortese says, and the best activity “depends on the individual child. Kids just respond better to different kinds of structure.” The same kid will also change over time. “Even if you have a set schedule this year, that might [change] next year depending upon a number of different variables in the kid’s life and the family’s life.”
And now, the most important and perhaps most difficult piece of advice to follow: Know your child. “If you take two kids and give them the identical school and after-school protocol, those kids might respond very differently,” Cortese continues. “One kid who is highly scheduled might do very well and another might need to dial it back.” The benefit of after-school activities is clear—but how frequent and how structured these activities need to be depends upon the child.
Or, as Newman puts it, “trust your child. Most children find their level and their interest if they have the time to do it. My advice to parents is always to understand your child and see what limits he or she has or doesn’t have.”
In Dr. Newman’s estimation, “everybody’s trying to raise a ‘star’ child, and in order to do so they are putting too much pressure on their children and definitely overscheduling them.” In other words, she says, “the parent has to be very careful not to be living out his or her dreams.” Instead, let’s remember that even though we aren’t living in the past, “giving kids the time and the place to just be kids is really important,” as Cortese says. And giving families the time to be families is important, as well.
Article reprinted with the permission of the NYC-based Child Mind Institute, which is dedicated to transforming mental health care for children everywhere by finding more effective treatments for childhood psychiatric and learning disorders, building the science of healthy brain development, and empowering children and their families with help, hope, and answers.