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The overbooked generation

Today's young people are more overscheduled than at any time in history. How families cope with the extracurricular crush. 

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    Kids and teens take dance and drama classes at Clater Kaye Theatreworks, on April 13, 2015, in Hickory, North Carolina. Clater Kaye Theatreworks trains students in the full spectrum of the entertainment industry. They offer classes in dance - tap, ballet, lyrical, ballroom - and drama. Kids today have many choices of extracurricular activities.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman
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With seven of her nine children still living at home, Lori Anne Whitman relies on a bouquet of gel pens to track who needs to be where at what time on a color-coded calendar. For this über-organized parent, the daily whirl starts when a succession of after-school buses bring home twins Allison and Kristen (first grade, pink), then Jason (third grade, orange), followed by Jennifer (seventh grade, purple), Kevin (ninth grade, fluorescent lime), and Brian (12th grade, red). 

Once they’ve helped themselves to snacks, Ms. Whitman kicks off the first round robin of drop-offs: orange to a tutor, red to tennis, lime to soccer. Then back home, where she reads with the twin pinks before whisking them off, along with purple, to Clater Kaye Theatreworks. CKT, as it appears on Whitman’s calendar, crams a smorgasbord of dance, voice, and drama classes into a nondescript building on Highway 127 in Hickory, N.C. Having carpooled with a friend from her public school, the seventh child, Danielle (10th grade, sky blue), is already there when her mother walks in. 

Gone are the days when “children pretty much just played unsupervised in the afternoon,” says Fay Lidji, a family therapist in Dallas, who sees families struggling under unprecedented pressures. “It used to be, if you were affluent, you might have a piano lesson once a week,” she says. “But today the kids go from 7:30 in the morning till about 6:30 at night with different kinds of activities.”  

While parents have long been juggling the demands of work with the desires for a family life, personal development, and just plain fun, now they find themselves also managing something else – the work-life balance of their children. As perhaps the most overscheduled generation in history, kids today are often involved in multiple activities after school, and parents, as the choreographers of their children’s pursuits, struggle with seemingly impossible demands on their time and pocketbooks. 

For both sides, questions loom: Are kids today too busy? Does all the frenetic activity do any good? How do families cope with the extracurricular crush? 

As parents scramble to deliver what might be called the after-school one-two punch – making sure children stay safe and exposing them to new experiences – they provide glimpses into the changing structure of family life and what children need to succeed as adults.  

Some, like Whitman, stitch together many different activities, while others find a single-venue after-school program. Either way it costs time, money, and energy.

Parents do all this because they hold high hopes for their children. A 2013 report from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals just how high parents’ aspirations are for their kids. Only 1 percent of the country’s more than 26 million sixth- through 12th-graders have parents who believed their children would fail to complete high school. Most (65 percent) have parents who say they expect them to get a college degree. Another 37 percent – almost evenly spread across economic and racial lines – have parents who expect them to earn a professional or graduate degree. 

But fulfilling those expectations can come at a high cost.

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To a large degree, how well children will ultimately do in school – and even later in life – depends on what they do after the last class bell rings. Studies repeatedly show that if kids are going to derail – whether by joining gangs; trying drugs, alcohol, or sex; or committing crimes – it is most likely to happen between 3 and 6 p.m. At the same time, a large and growing body of research demonstrates that children and teenagers who engage in nonacademic after-school activities tend to have a better attitude about their studies and better grades.

The good news is that the number of latchkey kids has been dropping, most likely because families have more options from which to choose. There are, for example, more than 2,800 United States Youth Soccer Clubs as well as countless school and unaffiliated sports teams. Tutoring and afternoon educational services have exploded. From Scouts to 4-H Clubs, chess teams to archery classes, workshops in museums to church-sponsored activities, the choice of specialized activities is staggering.

Similarly, more and more after-school programs have opened since the federal government recognized in the 1990s that working families needed help, says Jen Rinehart, vice president of research and policy at the Afterschool Alliance. Even those kids with, say, a grandparent making sure they stayed safe “were missing out on learning opportunities that other families could make happen,” Ms. Rinehart says. As a result of public investments, nearly one in four families today has a child attending an after-school program. 

These figures do not include such innovative initiatives as the reading mentorship program at Homework Hotline in Nashville, Tenn. Twice a week for 30 minutes, a tutor and a third-grader read to each other by phone. Is this as good as meeting face to face? Assuredly not, says Alison Forte at the hotline. But the telephone’s flexibility reaches kids who otherwise would have nothing. One boy told a tutor he was on a bench in Wal-Mart, book and phone in hand. While Mom shopped, they read. 

The bad news is that, despite headlines proclaiming American children are overscheduled, the numbers reveal that many hanker for more scheduling. Not surprisingly, the proportion of kids going to afternoon lessons, clubs, and sports rises dramatically with a family’s income, according to data from the US Census Bureau. At the same time, the Afterschool Alliance reports that, for every child enrolled in an after-school program, there are two others whose parents would sign them up, if they could only find one that was affordable and accessible. Although free programs exist, there aren’t enough to meet the overwhelming demand.

Studies also indicate that the cost of after-school activities places a disproportionately greater burden on families in lower-income brackets. Given the country’s widening income gap, many experts worry that poorer children will have even fewer opportunities. 

Just how hard all this juggling of finances and schedules is on parents is impossible to measure, but a study published in December 2006 by the nonprofit research firm Catalyst provides a useful, if indirect, indication. Catalyst found that what it calls PCAST – Parental Concern about After-School Time – costs US businesses between $50 billion and $300 billion per year in lost productivity because of stress, disruptions, and low morale. Most significant, PCAST cuts “across gender, race/ethnicity, and rank, from factory floor to executive suite.”   

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A high school sophomore, Hannah Kevitt has been taking dance lessons since she was 5 years old. She started at a small studio in her hometown of Hickory, N.C., and by the time she was 9, she was desperate to sing and act, too. So her parents enrolled her in classes at Clater Kaye Theatreworks, whose directors they met at church. Modern dance, ballet, voice, drama, tap, jazz – Hannah did it all, and as time went by, attending school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. felt like an onerous chore; homework, a torture.  

She was a good student, but what she wanted was to perform. Soon, says her mother, Lynne Kevitt, “it was just unrealistic to think she could be at school from 8 o’clock in the morning to 2:45-3 o’clock in the afternoon, then come home and go straight to Clater Kaye and still manage homework and everything else.”  

The family made a change. Since seventh grade, instead of catching the school bus, Hannah climbs the stairs to her room after breakfast. Surrounded by collages of snapshots, snow globes, and a collection of playbills clipped to a wall-mounted bedspring, Hannah logs into her classes at the Alpha Omega Academy, an accredited online Christian institution.  

So far, the pros of home-schooling outweigh the cons. With tuition about one fourth that of the private Christian school she used to attend, home-schooling frees up resources to pay for after-school classes for Hannah as well as for her sister, Rebekah, who has discovered a love for backstage work. With 40 hours of CKT classes – 35 now for Rebekah – plus rehearsals, performances, auditions, and choreographing for competitions, home-schooling also frees up another rare commodity: time. 

Hannah “goes to school” seven days a week and is usually done by lunchtime. This gives her a little downtime – what many experts are now hailing as necessary “nothing time” – before she heads to CKT. The Kevitts sometimes worry about Hannah falling behind in schoolwork, but “where her passion is, where her talent is,” Ms. Kevitt says, “it’s in pursuing her career.”  

The family knows there’s no guarantee Hannah will tread the boards on Broadway. But they also know that no one ever does without first devoting countless hours to mastering the craft. And they believe the training will not be wasted. As Hannah puts it, “what they teach me at Clater Kaye is not just about theater, but about life, how to approach things.” 

She is not alone in thinking this, according to sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman. For her 2014 book, “Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture,” Dr. Levey Friedman interviewed almost 100 parents, mostly middle and upper-middle class, who structured their family life and budget around soccer leagues, chess tournaments, and dance competitions. They did this not because they wanted their children, who were still in elementary school, to become professionals in these fields.

“What they want and what they’re instilling,” she says, “is the culture that’s going to help their children become investment bankers and consultants and lawyers and doctors and all of that.”   

She calls this “Competitive Kid Capital,” which includes internalizing the importance of winning, rebounding after a loss, performing under scrutiny and within time limits, and generally succeeding under stress. It’s not only on the soccer field or in the classroom that this will benefit them, Levey Friedman says. “It’s going to be in college, in graduate school, it’s going to be to pass the bar exam or to keep getting some sort of certification.” It also applies to their future work life, for no matter the job, she adds, there is “this element of constantly being judged, constantly proving your worth, constantly being critiqued and acquiring more credentials.” 

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Chris Cazell, a father waiting in the CKT lobby, knows how frenetic – and focused – kids have to be today. “It’s not like when I grew up when you did a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” he says. “If kids want to excel in an activity today, they get left behind if they don’t start to focus by age 10, no later than 12. Maybe,” he speculates, “what has changed is our expectation that they excel.”

As children enter middle school and then high school, the demands of academic work and the pressure of excelling in extracurricular activities, plus the dynamics of friendships, can act like “a big pressure cooker,” Ms. Lidji says. The load often splinters the family unit into a collective of adults and kids who interact more “like housemates than a family,” she adds. “They’re all coming and going, and they don’t see themselves as a unit.”  

In more extreme cases, a child acts out – steals money, mouths off, becomes belligerent, sometimes even threatens suicide. “A lot of times the kid is saying ‘I need you to hear me,’ ” says Catherine Garcia-Brake, a social worker with Gwinnett Social Services in Atlanta. “And the parents usually listen.”

This is key because, in Lidji’s experience, “it’s not so much fixing the child at all; it’s really tweaking the family” so that they can be more cohesive, and they can help each other put things in perspective. “That takes being intentional,” she says, “and that takes time, together.”

The Boyds in Nashville, for example, early on instituted a list of “nonnegotiables.” Over the course of a week, fourth-grader Joey Boyd will attend Engineering for Kids, play on a sports team, take piano lessons, and sometimes voice lessons, too. His father, Samson Boyd, hopes Joey will keep a foot in multiple camps. “Music is always welcome, and sports,” he says, provide a physical workout and teach important skills “other than book smarts.” He cites the usual pluses of leadership, teamwork, and “making on-the-spot decisions” along with another advantage: “The ultimate goal would be for him to achieve a sports scholarship that will help him pursue any field of study he chooses.”

For the time being, however, Joey is squeezed between extracurriculars and a crushing load of homework – far more than Mr. Boyd remembers ever having himself. So one nonnegotiable is time spent outside, whether playing with neighborhood kids on the weekend or, on weekdays, chasing his dad in a game of tag while Mom cooks dinner. Which leads to another family must: “eating together with no TV, no electronics, just conversation,” says Boyd. 

The US Census Bureau tracks shared family meals as a way to measure the well-being of children, because “this has always shown up as a strong indicator of parental engagement,” explains Lynda Laughlin, a family demographer at the federal agency. Looking at data collected from 1996 through 2011, she found that some 67 percent of school-age children regularly had dinner with a parent. She points out that this proportion does not vary significantly with income levels or family makeup, whether a child lives with married parents or in a single-parent home. 

What the census numbers do not reveal, however, is whether “you are eating in the car or sitting at the table,” says Ms. Laughlin. “We don’t ask about the quality of the meals.”  

Judging from the experience of many parents, the setting may not always be as important as just carving out time. For parents ferrying children to and from activities, says Lidji, car rides can prove a valuable tool. “You’re not having eye contact. You’re looking forward. You’re in a confined space with a beginning and an end,” she says, “and it provides an opportunity to talk about things that are difficult face to face with an open-ended time frame.” 

Whitman discovered this when her oldest first faced sex education in elementary school. “He was still riding in the back seat of the car, and he asked me all sorts of questions, and I didn’t have to worry about him seeing the look of horror or embarrassment on my face,” she says, laughing.

They had a great conversation, so when her next son was at the same stage, she stopped by his room. All she got were monosyllabic answers to her questions. Right, Whitman thought. Out came her gel pens. Soon, her boy found himself alone on a ride with her. Instead of one-word answers, they had a meaningful exchange, and she has since engineered one-child rides as often as possible. 

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Doris Ellington of South Bronx, N.Y., has found a way to create more meaningful time with her three children, too. During the week, the most time Ms. Ellington, a working mother, has to spend with her 11-year-old twins and 6-year-old daughter is at the end of the day at home.

But now that the children attend the after-school program of the Phipps Neighborhoods Cornerstone Center at Soundview Houses, all she has to do in the evening is check the twins’ homework and read with the youngest. Then, after the nightly bathing ritual, the family still has an hour to relax together before bedtime. 

Ellington considers herself fortunate, because Cornerstone is close by and free. And her kids love it. They are among the 60 students, kindergartners through middle-schoolers, who start arriving after school at 2:30 p.m. in wave after chattering wave.  

Over the next two hours, they do homework, research on the Internet, and play board games. Then they head into an elective where high-schoolers in Cornerstone’s Youth Council and Young Men’s Initiative often help run things. Depending on the day, it might be a poetry jam, math jeopardy, sports, or “architecture,” in which kids figure out how to build a model of their dream car or house. One afternoon, some excitedly split off to rehearse a fashion show. While one teenager works the music from a laptop, kids of all ages strut, whirl, march, slink, and sometimes, to show off, drop into the splits. They share the same music, but the choreography has a personal flourish. It is easy to see why Cornerstone has 41 names on its waiting list.

Ellington’s friends who don’t have access to good, affordable after-school programs, she says, “have other siblings picking their children up for them or they have a mother helping them out” with transportation and homework. The older the children, the harder it gets. “I’ve lived in this neighborhood for years,” Ellington adds, “and the teens out here, they just stay in the streets.”

After-school programs increasingly focus on providing enrichment, role models, access to computers, and homework assistance. Ellington has seen 11-year-old Delvin blossom from a shy child into a confident showman.

But Levey Friedman worries that isn’t always enough. Without also learning to compete, she says, children will be at a disadvantage compared to “the upper-middle class kids who are developing these skills and being able to balance demands on their time and the pressure to perform.” Again, Ellington is fortunate. Delvin’s twin, Danaisha, has discovered a talent for volleyball and plays on the team against other centers.  

Back at the Clater Kaye Theatreworks in North Carolina, Whitman is ready to head out on the day’s last round of color-coded pickups. As she leaves the lobby, she admits the frantic schedule leaves her little time for herself. Her husband travels frequently for work, so it is mostly up to her to deliver the one-two after-school punch. But it’s worth it. The kids’ full schedule “doesn’t leave them any time to get into trouble – a bored mind will find something to do, and it’s not always positive,” she says. “And,” she adds, with a smile, “I like to see them happy, engaged, and excelling at things.” 

Experts like Rinehart and Laughlin hope more and more families find ways to be able to say the same. 

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