BOSTON — They bolt out the door around 7 a.m. to begin a schedule so packed they won't get home until after dark. By day's end, they just want to eat dinner and crash in front of the TV. No, these aren't the overworked Americans of the 1990s.
It's their kids.
Long afternoons riding bikes and playing capture the flag have been exchanged for tap lessons, skating lessons, French lessons, and that perennial staple, piano lessons. The result is that the classic complaint, "Mom, I don't have anything to do," may become as outdated as the old swimming hole.
But it also means children today have less time to play - half-hour less each day, to be exact, than kids had just 16 years ago. In the first study since 1981 of how children spend their time, researchers found that more minutes go into school, doing homework, and helping around the house.
In fact, in the years between the reign of Michael Jackson and the advent of the Backstreet Boys, kids' free time shrank from 40 percent to 25 percent of overall hours, according to the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor.
That, both experts and parents say, may not be enough to foster the creativity and social skills children get from being left to their own devices.
"Playing is children's on-the-job training [for life]," says Vicki Bartolini, an education professor at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. "They learn how to negotiate, how to communicate ... how to problem-solve."
Reasons for the tight schedules range from the increase in the number of working mothers and single-parent households to the ultimate American ambition: creating a better life for one's children.
"You want them to have every opportunity - you don't want them to miss a thing," says Dean Wright, a sociology professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. "We try to make our children [be] like us, and a little better than us."
Today, the ladder of success seems more like a high-speed stairclimber - and many parents want to equip their children to keep up with technology, information, school, and the next-door neighbors.
"We live in a very competitive society," says Linda Dunlop, chairman of the psychology department at Marist University in New York. "You want to find every possible edge to let them stand out and shine."
That's especially true in suburbia, where children's lives can reach corporate-level organization. "I see it already in the second grade," says Patrick Bowler, a carpenter and father of two in Andover, Mass. He limits his second-grade daughter's after-school activities to one a week - either soccer or Irish step-dancing.
"I see kids playing hockey six nights a week in two leagues. It gets to the point where the activity overshadows schoolwork," he says.
For Kim Gates, a single mother of two in Norton, Mass., it all comes down to balance. Her son, who's in the second grade, plays soccer and is enrolled in an after-school science program. Both he and his younger sister take swimming lessons. But Ms. Gates says she's careful to set aside one or two evenings a week for reading or playing games. Her son's favorite: checkers.
Safety also plays a role in the overbooking of children, experts say. Dr. Dunlop points out that 75 percent of children preschool and younger have working moms, who need a safe place for them to stay after school.
MOREOVER even when children do have a stay-at-home parent, they often find there's no one around to play with. So their parents enroll them in the same sports programs and dance lessons as their friends. In fact, the University of Michigan study found that the time dual-income parents spent with their children was only three hours less than the 22 hours a week spent by parents with a stay-at-home spouse.
Still other children live in neighborhoods where it's not safe for them to run outside for a game of kick the can.
Given these factors, "it's up to the after-school programs to provide that down time and give kids the opportunity to draw upon their own resources," Professor Bartolini says.
Others say that just because children are busier, it doesn't mean their lives are worse. Indeed, those who deplore the hours kids spend in front of the television might be cheered to know today's children have cut back by 17 minutes a day.
And there's always the possibility that children actually like all the lessons.
"Before we leap into another vast indictment of employed parents yet again, we need to find out more," says Ellen Galinsky, head of the Families and Work Institute in New York. "When my daughter was into gymnastics, my taking her to lessons was not me forcing her to be a gymnast. I was helping her pursue her own interests."
The busy schedules are largely a product of the burgeoning middle class. It takes money to fund Victor's violin lessons and pay for Annabelle's soccer uniform, not to mention a car to shuttle everyone around. It's also preferable to have two parents: one to act as chauffeur and the other to man the home front.
"Children in the inner cities don't have access to all these different activities," says Professor Wright. "It's a class distinction, and it's growing further apart."
Wright believes children's overscheduled lives may lead to the ultimate oxymoron: planned spontaneity.
"It's getting to the point where [parents] say, 'OK, for the next 20 minutes, go enjoy the flowers.' That's not the way one does it. You need to take the opportunity to read, to enjoy a brisk winter afternoon."
HOW JENNY SPENDS HER TIME
* A new study by the University of Michigan shows American children ages 3 to 12 are logging more hours in school, taking more time for homework and chores, and spending less time talking with their families, watching TV, and going to church. Free time - what's left over after sleeping, eating, personal care, and school - dropped from 40 percent to 25 percent of the week. Researchers asked 3,585 children to keep a diary logging every minute of their time over two days.
1997 Hours:minutes/per week
Preschool/day care 20:00
Family conversations 0:34
1981 Hours:minutes/per week
Preschool/day care 11:30
Family conversations 1:12
Source: University of Michigan Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor.