No homework, no sports – just a night with family

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's a small, quiet town, set 20 miles fromthe world's most frenetic metropolis – a place where many who reap Manhattan's largess come to raise their kids, away from the furious din of a city driven by success.

In many ways, Ridgewood is a town defined by families, mostly successful, where Dad may drive a Lexus and Mom may cart the kids from home to school to practice in a Volvo or four-wheel-drive SUV.

But behind the facade of quaint brick homes tucked into evergreens and rhododendron, there are signs that many feelas harried as they might be if surrounded by blocks of city high-rises. With schedules jam-packed with activities to sharpen the bodies and wits of kids, child rearing here is as intense as the 80-hour week of a Wall Street attorney.

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So this past Tuesday, yet another scheduled event: "Ridgewood Family Night – Ready, Set, Relax!" Instead of soccer practice, piano lessons, homework, or staying late at the office, some of the town's 25,000 residents decided just to take a night off.

For the past few months, an 18-member committee worked to gain the support of the public schools, local sports clubs, and religious groups in order to spread the ready, set, relax theme.

WITH the help of a local marketing firm, the committee was able to print hundreds of posters that were then put up around town by local boy- and girl-scout troops. Elementary- school students were given "Save the Date For Me" fliers to bring home to their parents, with the top 10 reasons they should participate in Family Night. The mayor issued an official proclamation and the public schools and sports clubs agreed to cancel all after-school activities and assign no homework so families could relax and do nothing.

"Our hope was to raise awareness," says Cynthia Busbee, a publicist with a Ridgewood marketing firm who volunteered to help organize and publicize the Family Night. "We just wanted this to give people a time to reflect upon the choices that they make ... to make cookies, to take a walk, or hang out and take in a movie. We just really wanted to say, 'Hey, we're overscheduling, let's stop and take a look at what we're doing and make conscious choices."

While many chuckle at the irony – "only in Ridgewood would you have to schedule a time to relax," some of them say – it's become a clarion call, challenging the very essence of middle-class family life in contemporary America.

"It's just a high-stress era," said Jennifer Shore, a stay-at-home mom, waiting Tuesday to pick up her two sons, Henry and Benjamin, from Willard Elementary School. "When we were little, we didn't have our parents scheduling all these activities. We just went out to play. It wasn't the 3:30 karate, the 4:15 baseball practice, or then the 5:30 tutor."

Many experts observe that millions of American parents feel pressure to make sure kids are prepared to compete in a high-pressure environment. Any gap in their physical, musical, or intellectual development might mean they won't get into, say, a school like Princeton, which lies just south of Ridgewood in New Jersey.

"It's great that we have so many options available to us, but I think that people are so into the competitive aspect that they put their kids in everything," says Ms. Busbee.

Indeed, with the pressure of feeling they have to prepare their children for success in a more and more competitive world, many parents around the country feel they have to keep kids as active as possible.

"Overscheduling – it certainly seems to have taken on a life of it's own," says Barbara Fiese, chair of the psychology department at Syracuse University in New York. "The push to have your kids involved in multiple activities ... has put big strains on families ... kids are more stressed out because they don't have the opportunity for the down time that they need."

The trend is starting to be addressed elsewhere, too. At the University of Minnesota, a group called Family Life 1st believes the balance between internal family bonds and external activities has become gravely distorted in modern society, and it is trying to strengthen family bonds through a grassroots movement of concerned families.

It appeared that most of Ridgewood stayed home Tuesday night. Vehicles flowed freely through usually traffic-choked downtown, and shops and restaurants were nearly deserted (though a drizzle may have had something to do with it).

Marcia Marra took the night very seriously. She came up with the idea for a night off for Ridgewood last year after growing frustrated with her children's schedules and those of families she'd worked with at a local family counseling service. She re-recorded her answering machine Tuesday to inform callers that she was enjoying a quiet night at home with family. Leaving a message was not an option.

At Kathy and David Winkler's house, everyone – parents, grandparents, and three kids – gathered around a worn wooden table in the living room and chose up sides for a night of Monopoly.

But not everyone was able to participate. Laurie Myones, picking up daughters Sara and Madison at Willard Elementary, didn't believe the night would change much – at least not at her house. "[The schedule] is as crazy as you want to make it," she said, stepping out of a blue Land Rover to greet her kids. "Nobody's forcing you to put your kids in all these activities." But her kids didn't get the night off – they had tennis lessons in a nearby town not participating in the event.

BUT Carolyn Conetta, a financial administrator at a local church, was looking forward to the night. Her daughter and two sons had each gotten a respite from their usual sports practices, and her husband planned to be home early for dinner. Then they hoped to sit down to enjoy a modern take on "togetherness" – watching a video. But, concerned the idea might not have been too original that evening, she worried about one more scheduling problem: "We might have to get to the store early tonight if we want to get a good movie."

• Associated Press material was used in this report.

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