Image: Image: Heath Foster and her children
Jim Seida  /  msnbc.com
Jessica Kitzman (right) of Bischofberger Violins in Seattle helps Heath Foster pick out a rental violin for her 7-year-old daughter, Kate. Her son Gus, 4, sits on her lap. Foster says she likes to expose her children to new experiences but tries to limit them to no more than two activities at once.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/30/2010 3:14:38 PM ET 2010-07-30T19:14:38

No need to worry about frazzled kids cramming ballet lessons, soccer practice, Girl Scout meetings and piano recitals into their schedules come the new school year.

Turns out, most kids are fine. It’s the parents, who bear the burden of shuttling kids from one activity to another and feel the pressure to see their children succeed, who might actually be the ones on overload.

Contrary to popular belief that many children today are stressed out by overscheduled lives, recent research suggests that a heavy load of structured activities is actually beneficial for children, according Sandra L. Hofferth, director of the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland at College Park and author of a study titled “The ‘Hurried’ Child: Myth vs. Reality.”

“We found that the very active children were thriving emotionally,” said Hofferth, a family science professor. “In contrast, children who had the fewest activities were the most withdrawn, socially immature and had the lowest self-esteem.”

Her research, published last month as a book chapter in “Life Balance: Multidisciplinary Theories and Research,” followed children ages 9 to 12. Only one in four kids met the criteria of hurried — three or more activities or more than four hours devoted in a two-day period, Hofferth found. The vast majority of kids — 58 percent — were balanced, meaning they were pursuing only one or two activities, and 17 percent were involved in no activities.

The research relied on nationally representative data as well as time diaries and interviews with parents and kids.

Although supported by additional studies that show most American youth lead balanced lives, Hofferth’s findings are not without controversy. In the last two decades, many experts have lamented children’s lack of time for free play. And in 2006, the American Academy of Pediatrics cautioned that a hurried lifestyle contributes to stress and anxiety in children and could lead to depression.

Parents need down time, too
Kimberly Kauer said her busy kids are fine, but she’s struggled with their full schedules.

The 38-year-old Redwood City, Calif., woman is the mother of Chloe, 6, and Beckett, 3. Last spring, her daughter was enrolled in gymnastics, swimming, Girl Scouts, Spanish class and softball.

“Once I started to get the second kid into the mix, I thought, each of the kids can handle what they’re doing, but I can’t handle what they’re doing!” she said. “I really found myself getting really stressed.”

What’s significant isn’t the number of activities but rather how much stress they cause for the kids and the parents, said William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota.

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“A lot of parents feel under a tremendous time pressure from work and taking care of kids and taking care of the house,” he said.

These days, everything revolves around kids and their schedules, but it’s important to look at who else is affected by a child’s activities, Doherty said. It’s OK to keep your child off a traveling soccer team, for example, if you value family togetherness time on the weekends. Parents need down time, too.

“We live in an age of hyper-parenting when parents feel guilty about asking kids to make the smallest sacrifice for the good of the family,” he said.

Setting limits
Heath Foster of Seattle likes the idea of exposing her three children — Sophia, 9, Kate, 7, and Gus, 4 — to new experiences but tries to limit them to no more than two activities each at once.

“You have to talk these things through with your kids,” she said. “But then you have to look at this on a piece of paper and think, do I want to be doing all of these activities at one time?”

Foster, 43, looks for activities close to home or tries to sign her kids up for programs at the same time. She used to drive several miles in heavy traffic to take her daughter to a gymnastics class until she decided that was “crazy.” Now, instead of shuttling her children to piano lessons, a teacher comes to their house. Foster also tries to make sure her kids have a couple of days a week when they can come home from school and just hang out in their rooms.

“It's nice to keep things as simple as possible,” she said.

Suzanne Strong of Redmond, Wash., cherishes the weeks when her kids have nothing going on. The 37-year-old mom limits her two children, Romeal, 12, and Paloma, 10, to just one activity at a time.

“We don’t really enjoy running around in the evening after we’re done with our day,” said Strong, who works part time as a photographer and graphic designer.

Romeal, who will play soccer this fall, says the rule at his house is “school first, activity second.”

While he says he sometimes thinks he might like to add another activity, he understands his parent’s one-activity-at-a-time rule.

“Three would be too much,” he said. “Two would be OK.”

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