Until first grade, Emma Feinstone would simply step out her front door to hook up with a playmate. Then one day, her mother recalls, "All the kids were gone." Emma's friends weren't giving her the cold shoulder; they were off playing soccer, learning piano, attending Scouts, or all of the above. Her mother, Marian Miller, says Emma would "literally stand on the street by herself." Ms. Miller felt sorry for Emma, an only child, and reluctantly began signing her up for after-school activities so she'd have a social life.
Now Emma is in seventh grade, and she's "busier than ever," groans her mother. When she's not playing competitive soccer or swimming for her school team, she's barely eking out time for homework. "All this activity is the bane of every parent's existence," says Miller.
Like Miller, many parents start out with the best intentions for their children, wanting them to experience as many opportunities for growth and enrichment as possible. But they often end up wondering how to get off the treadmill of the family's breathless schedule.
Child development experts, while sympathetic to these parents' quandary, urge them not to get off the treadmill altogether, but to slow it down. They recognize that for families with two parents working outside the home, it's not realistic to expect that kids will spend every afternoon catching frogs, playing pickup baseball, or baking cookies with mom. But, they say, parents need to somehow carve out time for their children to just hang out. Time spent alone with one's thoughts, playing casually with friends, or taking a walk with a family member can be more valuable than anything else, they insist.
One might think it's as easy as just saying no. But our culture puts enormous pressure on parents to keep children constantly stimulated, says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, a parent educator and author of last year's bestseller "Raising Your Spirited Child."
"Everyone feels this pressure, but we can't always articulate it," she explains, adding: "We cannot let this message keep us from listening to and responding sensitively to cues from our kids."
Children tell parents either verbally or by acting out if they've had enough. For example, Ms. Kurcinka recalls one mother who insisted on taking her child to his first circus despite vehement protests. "Instead of enjoying the show, he behaved terribly," she says. "The mother was responding to cultural pressure more than to her child, who was exhausted from his week at a new school."
Of course, watching for cues doesn't mean letting your child call all the shots. "Many children would book themselves up 24/7 if they could. It's up to parents to help guide them toward a balanced schedule and to teach them the importance of downtime," says Kurcinka.
When her children were young, balance meant allowing them to participate in only one extracurricular activity each, and making frequent trips to the family's TV-free cabin on a lake in Minnesota. Others recommend one sports- and one arts-related activity. And many people suggest parents let kids sample a variety of activities in their early years so that they can later focus on one or two favorites.
The latter approach worked best for Amanda Senatore. Now a ninth-grader at Philips Academy in Andover, Mass., Amanda showed an early interest in the performing arts. "She really loved her dance, piano, and singing lessons, so we encouraged her to focus on that and cut back on everything else," recalls her mother, Nina Senatore, an assistant professor of education at Simmons College in Boston. "Parents need to give themselves permission to make these kinds of good choices for their children."
And a fine choice it was. Amanda eventually narrowed her performing arts interests to voice, and was one of three freshmen chosen this year to sing with a group at school. With maturity beyond her years, she muses about her future: "Singing as a career would be a hard life," she says, "but it will stick with me forever as a great hobby."
Amanda's mother often reminded her that passion for performing mustn't get in the way of homework. " 'School is your job,' she always told me."
When Amanda sees young children caught up in a frenzy of activity, she feels "a little sad." She explains: "Kids can't be pulled in many different directions at once. They'll be pulled apart!"
She's right, say the pros. Bottom line, they concur, is that there's nothing wrong with soccer, gymnastics, chess club, or any of the other structured activities offered to kids these days. But, done to an extreme - with a different activity every afternoon, for instance - children are robbed of time for unstructured play or to do absolutely nothing.
"On the outside," explains Jacqueline Haines, director of the Gesell Institute of Human Development in New Haven, Conn., "it may look like your son or daughter is simply wasting time, but a child sitting and staring into space is accomplishing a lot."
What they are accomplishing might be called the fourth "R": resourcefulness. "This quality is in demand in our world now more than ever," says Mary Mindess, professor of education at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass. "In all walks of life, there are problems if people haven't learned how to look outside of the box." When children are constantly booked up, they lose the ability to entertain themselves or problem-solve without help, she says. "The child who can entertain him or herself, daydream, and just be in one's own thought world, has been given a real gift. You don't have things happen to you that you haven't dreamt about first."
Get real, some parents might say. If their children were home with nothing to do, they would want to switch on the TV or jump online and instant-message their buddies. But, Ms. Mindess says, it's up to parents to enforce a no-electronics policy. In fact, the more bored kids are, the better.
Connie Malone, mother of six-year-old David, would concur. "Kids have to be really bored to make the most of downtime," she says.
"David's most creative times happen when he is forced to become inventive and come up with his own entertainment."
Kids aren't as resistant to downtime as adults might think. And sometimes, their resistance melts after they become engaged in something. Take Emma Feinstone, for example. At first when asked about those moments when she's alone with nothing to do, she comments that it's "way too boring." But, then, she thinks of summertime when she's bored "a lot," and she lights up. "I love to write. When I get really bored, I start to write fantasy stories, and then I completely forget I'm bored."
It's often the parents who don't really want the downtime, says Anthony Wolf, author of "The Secret of Parenting" and the father of two grown children. If families are resigned to staying busy, he adds, there are many things they can do to prevent what he calls a "product development" approach.
First of all, Dr. Wolf says, make the most of those hours spent shuttling Sammy around town, by enjoying a good talk in the car. Also, keep attending your child's events and performances - and maintain a low-key, positive, encouraging attitude on the sidelines. "Even when it seems they might not care that parents show up, they really do," Wolf says. And most of all, he adds, parents need to make sure their children are having fun. "Problems arise when too much emphasis is put on performance and success."
Peter Wentzell, a sixth-grader in Westborough, Mass., is grateful that fun has been the priority with his karate, viola, and swimming classes. He even goes so far as to say, "Viola has been a blast!"
An activity can be wildly entertaining, but if it interferes with such important rituals as the family dinner hour, many people balk. In the past 20 years, there's been a 33 percent decline in the number of families who eat dinner together regularly, according to research compiled by University of Minnesota's Family Social Science Department. Family dinners help children learn not only the importance of eating their peas, but, more important, they are a forum for instilling values, teaching manners and civility, and coming together to share ideas, experiences, and love.
William Doherty, a professor in this department and the author of "Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times" has been especially vocal on this topic. He urges families to take a hard look at their goals: "Ask yourselves what kind of family life do you want? What about dinnertime? Weekends? Vacations? Remind yourselves that a quality family life is the core of what we give children."
Two years ago, Mr. Doherty presented his views on reclaiming family life to a community group in Wayzeta, Minn. The audience was so receptive that they organized a movement called "Family Life 1st" and got fired up about an agenda that included such goals as convincing hockey coaches not to schedule mandatory practices on Thanksgiving.
Since then, the group launched its own Web site (FamilyLife1st.org) to inform families nationwide about their agenda and invite them to join in. The media has been buzzing about this organization ever since, causing Doherty to comment: "We sure have touched a nerve. I think it's a cultural moment that has arrived."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society