Quick! Is Johnny signed up for daydreaming?
These days, Bobbie Eggers eats dinner with her husband and three kids - ages 9, 11, and 13 - almost every night. They read together at bedtime and play board games, especially Clue, whenever they can.
All unremarkable activities, perhaps, but among the families Ms. Eggers knows in tony Greenwich, Conn., such unprogrammed family time - and the fact that her kids have given up figure skating, horseback riding, and hockey to get it - is almost revolutionary.
Lamenting today's frenetic lifestyles - the 2-year-olds juggling soccer and swimming, the moms who spend their days shuttling kids between saxophone lessons, hockey, and kickboxing - is common. Despite research showing that what kids really need is family meals, or time to goof off, parents still worry that forgoing cello lessons or basketball might keep a latent talent from being discovered, might make Harvard and Yale Universities look past their children to the more accomplished offspring of their neighbors.
Slowly, however, a grass-roots revolt is brewing. Some educators and coaches are speaking out against overscheduling, even as more families sending their kids back to school this fall are finding the courage to turn down teams and tournaments, to limit activities to a few favorites so that they can rediscover time to be a family.
"I hear that from people regularly," says William Doherty, a social science professor at the University of Minnesota and coauthor of "Putting Family First." "Now that the cultural momentum is starting to turn, it empowers individual parents to say, 'Let's not do this, let's cut back. I don't want my child to be overscheduled.' It gives them the language for that."
The backlash is growing slowly. But it's also gotten national attention - Oct. 24 is now "Take Back Your Time Day" - and a growing network of community groups is calling attention to overscheduling.
• In Ridgewood, N.J., Ready Set Relax! will hold its fourth no-activity day this spring, a night that's kept practice-, meeting-, and homework-free. "Parents feel free time is wasted time, and we're trying to remind people that that time is very beneficial to kids," says Marcia Marra, who helped found the group. "Now there are pockets of parents addressing this on their own" She's heard from more than 200 communities through the group's website (www.readysetrelax.org) who are interested in doing something similar.
• In Wayzata, Minn., Putting Family First, one of the first volunteer organizations to call attention to the need for unplanned time, has been joined by two other groups. This year one of them, Family Time First, is urging people to set aside one night a week to connect with their families, promoting the idea of family meals and planning a "family day" in February.
• In Sidney, N.Y. a parent proposal last year led the school district to make Wednesday an "activity free" night. The feedback has been "exceptionally positive," says superintendent Dominic Nuciforo. This year, he's even changed the Board of Education meetings from Wednesday to Tuesday.
It's not hard to find people who agree that manic scheduling has gotten out of hand. Talk to any parent or educator and the anecdotes come quickly: the girl who missed her grandmother's funeral because it conflicted with a tournament; the family who didn't visit grandparents on Thanksgiving because of football practice; the 4-year-olds who practice hockey at 5 a.m., and the first-grade teacher whose students complain about how tired they are.
Still, parents are slow to condemn it. The pressure, they say, can be overwhelming, and everyone just wants to provide the best opportunities for their kids. "All of us face the pressure," says psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, coauthor of "The Overscheduled Child." "I'd say, 'I'm not putting my son up for travel soccer,' and ... you'd feel like you're a hair's breadth short of child abuse."
He worries that parents who don't combat that pressure run the risk not only of making childhood less fun, but of causing stress by pushing kids into sports before they're ready. "We're professionalizing everything about childhood," he says.
Eggers, the Greenwich mother, lost some friends over her decision to take her kids out of activities. Their days are still full - a juggling routine of fencing, choir, musical instruments, soccer, and basketball - but her decision to cut back on activities and to work from home meant making time not only for family meals, but also for unplanned time in which the kids could build forts or play with Legos. "Kids need time to build their little empires," she says.
She and other parents say the pressure, even with toddlers, comes in part from a perception of what colleges want. It's a trickledown effect that elite schools are aware of, and at least a few are trying to change. "We have to stop our part," says Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. "We don't own the whole thing, but we absolutely own a piece of it."
Ms. Jones realized something was wrong as more and more applications came in with the extracurricular section crammed, and she heard from more parents in place of calls from kids. The mother of a 16-year-old daughter, she blames the phenomenon on a generational tendency, baby boomers' drive toward perfection.
So she made some changes. The application now has five lines instead of 10 under the activities section and asks applicants to list their outside interests instead of citing honors and awards. Now, says Jones, she hears about a boy's Friday night poker club with friends or the way a student enjoys fishing with his father. "It gives more texture to an applicant, and I hope in some small way we're signalling to them that they don't have to be perfect. We don't want perfection."
Still, she realizes that those changes alone won't do much, which is one reason she's on a crusade to make elite schools think about their effects on how kids are raised.
"Colleges have created mechanisms to crowd out the kids who are dreamers, to crowd out the kids who step off the conventional path and want to do something unique," Jones says. "What does it mean to have a nation of kids who don't know how to dream?"