My neighbor Isabella is the picture of productivity. She works hard all day as a full-time student, exercises regularly at three dance classes a week and one karate session, and attends church every Sunday. Oh, and when her French lessons end next month, she's hoping to start taking an art class too. That is, if she can get home in time to finish her homework and get to bed by 9 p.m. After all, she is only 8.
Sound familiar? School-age kids spend an average of five hours per week on organized extracurricular activities, but others log much more time, up to a staggering 20 hours each week, according to a Society for Research in Child Development report. As early as first grade, children have days that are booked as tight as a CEO's. One reason? "Seven- and 8-year-olds want to sample everything," says Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents. "Their enthusiasm for new activities is thrilling. It's just what every parent wants to see, so it can be hard to say no."
Unfortunately, filling up your child's days may not only drain your bank account, it can also leave her running on empty when activities cut into time for homework, meals, and shut-eye. Doing too much can also lead to stress that may be harmful to her health. To help your child strike the right balance between being active and overextended, try these pointers from parenting pros.
Zero In on Her Passions
With dozens of activities available, choosing which ones to let your kid try can be challenging -- especially when she wants to try them all. "Consider how much your child has been asking to get involved in a certain activity," says Braun. "Has she been mentioning tae kwon do a few times a week? Then it's likely to be something she will love and stick with." And don't immediately discount the things your child might want to experiment with simply because her pals are participating in them -- kids may feel more comfortable sampling a class or an activity when they can share it with a friend.
Plan for Now -- and the Future
Think about how you could spread out your child's wish list over the entire year rather than crunching it into one season, suggests Claire McCarthy, M.D., a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Boston and mom of five. For instance, you might want to save time-intensive T-ball for summer when school is out. Agree on a maximum number of activity hours a week -- no more than four to six is a good limit for kids this age -- rather than how many things he can join. Be sure to factor in time for games, tournaments, and performances, and not just the practices and lessons.
Deal With Disappointment
Setting limits on activities likely means having to say no to at least one request. "In that case, it's important to let your child know that you respect her wishes," says Braun. "Acknowledge what she wants, but explain that four extracurricular activities is too much." Once you fill her in on the reasons behind your rejection (time, money, scheduling conflicts), brainstorm a solution together. Try saying, "Rather than doing both soccer and art classes in the fall, why don't you do one in the spring instead?" Allowing your child to be involved in the decision-making when you say no can lighten the letdown. Another frustration you might face: After weeks of pleading to take Italian lessons, your child might want to say arrivederci to her studies. Sidestep this scenario by visiting a class or doing a trial before signing on the dotted line. If a dry run isn't possible, lay out a time frame with your child. "Explain that you are signing up for a specific number of lessons, and if she doesn't like it after those wrap up, she can stop," says Braun.
Strike a Healthy Balance
Even with two or three activities, it's easy for children to get overwhelmed and anxious when rushing from home to school to activity with no time to take a breather. Dr. McCarthy suggests watching for red flags. "Moodiness, sleep trouble, fatigue, injuries from sports, and slipping grades are all signs that your kid is doing too much," she says. To help tweak your child's teeming schedule, pencil in a few precious moments to do absolutely nothing. "Children need time to rest and relax," says Dr. McCarthy. "The imaginative play that they engage in during unstructured time is absolutely crucial for their intellectual and emotional development."
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Parents magazine.