Does your child have too much to do?

by Benjamin Spock MD

When I was in private practice, parents sometimes consulted me because their child seemed to be increasingly tense and anxious for no reason the parent could see. I would always ask a number of questions, among them, “What is the child’s day like?”. Occasionally it turned out that the parents had arranged after-school activities for the child – five afternoons a week; everything from Girl Scouts to opera appreciation classes. So, at least one source of the problem was the child’s overscheduled days.

Why do some parents feel the need to occupy their children so fully? Most often, I think, it’s because they worry that in this intensely competitive society of ours, their children will be left behind unless they receive every educational and cultural advantage. In other families, both parents have outside jobs and want their children to be safely occupied when they’re not in school.

I believe that overscheduling, and the inclination of some parents and teachers to be unnecessarily controlling, robs children of some of their inborn drive to learn for themselves and to strive for independence. It also robs them of opportunities to develop their own interests and hobbies, which are valuable if they are to develop into well-rounded, successful adults. In fact, studies of the childhoods of unusually successful individuals have revealed one common denominator: as children these people all became deeply interested in some hobby or project (not necessarily related to their later occupation) and stuck with it.

It may be easier to understand the importance of independence if we look at how children learn and develop in the first few years of life. Children are born to be curious, inquisitive and explorative. One year olds are never still. They get into everything, taste specks of dust, climb stairs before they can walk. They want to manipulate every object, and copy every action they see. As they get older, their eagerness to master adult skills is even more pronounced. In fact that’s how children between the ages of two and six spend most of their waking hours – practising being adult workers, car drivers parents of babies, and so forth

Love plays an important part in this process. Children work hardest at learning to behave like the people they love: Unloved children do not imitate.

At the same time that they’re copying adult actions, children also want to establish their own autonomy – that is, they want to do things by themselves. At seven or eight months they want to hold their own bottle. In the second year they’ll say “No!” to an activity, even if it’s something they like to do. They do not want to be dominated. They want to be the ones to make the decisions.

All these strivings to grow up can be nurtured or suppressed, depending on the attitude of the adults governing the child. The drive for autonomy can be strengthened by giving children the opportunity to practise new skills until they are mastered. Or, as children grow older, their urge to learn and mature can be impaired if their parents and teachers are constantly directing and dominating them unnecessarily; filling every waking minute with dictated activities.

There are a number of very human pastimes children especially enjoy – spending time with friends; playing with dolls; organising pickup games of baseball or basketball; reading books; self-selected projects of all kinds. These are not just pleasant pursuits. These activities keep children’s feelings alive and warm in a society that is pushing us further and further into cool technology. They teach co-operation, leadership, creativity, responsibility, independent thinking and self-discipline. In these ways they help prepare children for good marriages, jobs and relationships with people.

Compared to these benefits, the value of special lessons seems to me to be secondary. It’s not that special instruction is bad or unimportant. But lessons or prescribed activities should not be allowed to take the place of spontaneous ones. When both parents work outside the home, over-scheduling can be a way of providing supervision for the child. Usually, though, there are better alternatives – or there should be. The child should be with a substitute parent whom she likes; or in an after-school program, preferably at her regular school, that offers activities she can pursue for her own interest and enjoyment. Instructors should be selected for their popularity with children. There should be no grading. The possible offerings are endless: athletics (with coaches who will emphasise not perfection or winning but participation, teamwork and enjoyment); computer operation; carpentry; electronics and so on. Parents should demand such programs.

I started with the example of children who were sent to five after-school activities a week. They didn’t have much time for friendship, reading, hobbies, or fun. It seemed clear that; while their parents may have been hoping to make them more accomplished, the kids were instead becoming tense under the pressure. I can picture other children who are just as busy every day after school but with their own spontaneous interests. In these activities they are being themselves, cultivating their curiosity and developing their character. So, it’s not a question of how many hours a child should spend or how many interests she should have, but the spirit in which activities are entered into and carried out.