Is it a good idea for children to get involved in sports, dance classes, music lessons, and other commitments outside of their school work and household chores? How much of this kind of thing is too much? Can you suggest any practical guidelines?
From our perspective, this is an area of modern family life that needs careful re-examination. Circumstances vary from home to home, of course, but as a general rule it's been our observation that kids are far too busy these days. This is a serious situation, since children require lots of time, space, freedom, leisure and peace to develop their creative and imaginative capacities to the full. Excessive stress, structure and organized activity can be deadly enemies of a happy and healthy childhood. That's not to mention that too many outside activities can become a real strain on the family pocketbook.
What can be done about it? While we're hesitant to lay down any hard-and-fast rules, we would suggest that an intentional simplification of the weekly schedule would probably benefit many contemporary kids in a big way. As a rule of thumb, we'd say that an elementary school-age child shouldn't take on more than one extra-curricular activity per school term. The same guideline would apply to secondary school students.
It's worth mentioning that the definition of an "extra-curricular activity" isn't set in stone. It may need to flex from one family to the next. Soccer, ballet, martial arts, music lessons, painting and drawing classes, and all kinds of team and individual sports clearly belong in this category. Church youth groups and missions may be more difficult to place since many parents view them as necessary and non-negotiable components of their children's spiritual training. Instead of rating these activities on a scale of relative value, it might be helpful ask some basic questions about the amount of time they're taking up. How many evenings per week is your child spending away from home? If the number is too high, you should think about making some cuts.
If you find this a challenging proposition you may need to stop and ask yourself some questions about the motives behind all this busyness. Is it really about your child and his best interests? Or are you driving him to achieve because you're driven by issues of your own? Does your daughter play the violin because she loves the instrument, or is this a case of "keeping up with the Joneses?" Did your son join the football team because he enjoys the game, or are you living vicariously through his athletic exploits? Is it a question of enriching your children's life-experience, or are you merely trying to prove that they're "better" than other kids in the neighborhood? If negative motives such as pride, ego, parental insecurity or a desire to compensate for dysfunctional relationships are allowed to run rampant in this way, they can end up inflicting serious damage on your children's self-image and the dynamics of your family interactions.
On the positive side, we want to encourage you to seek the correct balance for your family, based on your knowledge of each individual member's unique needs and capabilities. A certain amount of stress and structure can be a good thing, and some people can handle more of it than others. Others need much wider margins. There are some tell-tale signs that will let you know if your kids are being pushed beyond their limits – depression, for example, or irritability, emotional withdrawal, and physical symptoms such as stomach pain. If you see any of these red flags, don't hesitate to take decisive action. Let your child know that it's okay not to continue with certain activities, or to keep them up privately as an at-home hobby. If necessary, engage the services of a professional family counselor who can help you work through these issues.
Call us. Focus on the Family's Counseling Department can provide you with referrals to qualified Christian therapists practicing in your community. Our staff would also consider it a privilege to discuss your needs and concerns with you over the phone.
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