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Overscheduled kids are not getting ahead

Soccer. Baseball. Basketball. Volleyball. Travel teams. Gymnastics. Dance. Tae kwon do. Piano. Violin. Band. Quiz Bowl. French Club. Latin Club. Science Olympiad. Required community service. AP classes. SAT prep. Homework, homework, more homework. Tutoring. Therapist.

When did family life become one giant to-do list?

For decades now, experts have been warning that our children are overbooked. The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued reports on the dangers of overscheduling: Young children deprived of playtime are missing an essential element of their cognitive, physical, social and emotional development. Preteens who specialize in one sport risk burnout and an increased risk of injury. High school students pressured to beef up their resumes can suffer from depression and anxiety.

It takes a toll on parents as well, not to mention the cost to shuttle kids among all those activities.

Despite what the marketers and neighbors might say, the truth is that our kids will still get into college even if they've never watched a Baby Einstein video, played on a travel soccer team or been president of the Medieval Literature Club.

"The parents who are over-the-top, you're never going to change," says Alvin Rosenfeld, a child psychiatrist and author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap. "It's about the incessant pressure on the rest of us. It's very hard to have the inner fortitude to resist that pressure.

"This generation really does feel a commitment to the ultimate emotional outcome of their kids," he says. "Fifty years ago, parents were content to provide food, shelter and education. Today, much more is expected of you."

Then there's the new global economy to worry about. Our kids are competing against the whole world for jobs and slots at Harvard.

"We're very nervous. We want our kids to do OK in this new world. We want to prepare them -- as we should," says Rosenfeld. "But we tend to go over the top. We can't do anything in moderation; we're either ‘supersize me' or on a diet."

The irony is that our traditional American strengths -- independence, thinking outside the box, creative problem-solving, the qualities that can best position us on the global stage -- develop best when kids have time to play, to dream, to dawdle.

GETTING IN

As dean of admissions at Texas Christian University, Ray Brown sees evidence of overscheduled kids every day.

"It's happening here like it's happening at a lot of selective schools in this country," he says. "If you read the popular press, you read that all this overscheduling will lead to admission at the school of your choice."

That, however, is a myth, Brown says.

"If you are part of the great middle underneath that bell-shaped curve -- not the 1 or 2 percenters, the world-class musician, the world-class dancer, the world-class athlete -- but everybody else, it really doesn't matter if you're scheduled to the gills. That's not going to overcome a mediocre transcript."

In particular, Brown says he sees too much prepping for standardized exams. "If a kid would spend as much time on Algebra II as prepping for the SAT, that kid would be an A student in Algebra instead of a B student."

For the vast majority of students, Brown says, the transcript is the most important thing. If the college admissions decision is on a scale of 100, the transcript counts for 50 or 60. Test scores count for an additional 20.

"Just because you were second-team all-district in soccer, terrific for you, but that's not going to get you into a selective college," Brown says.

"If you read the popular press, you'd believe it is so difficult to get into college. But the vast majority of schools are admitting well over 70 percent of their applicant pool."

But -- and it's a pretty big but -- it is getting increasingly difficult to get into the top 300 schools in America. TCU is one of those. In 2000, the university had 4,800 applicants for nearly 1,500 freshman class slots. This year, it was 12,200 applicants for a class of 1,625.

And it's becoming darn near impossible to get into the country's top 100 schools, the really selective universities like Harvard and Rice.

"With their applicant pool, the students all look alike," Brown says. "They all have 4.0 GPAs, all have fabulous test scores, all have taken six AP courses their junior and senior years. That's when the resume starts taking on greater importance."

ALL IN MODERATION

In 1989, Andree Aelion Brooks wrote Children of Fast-Track Parents, one of the first books to examine this new achievement-oriented society. Twenty years later, she says, it has only become more extreme.

This is not all bad. "The ones that are gifted, talented and academically sharp tend to have a glorious time," she says. "They can be lifted to the extent of their abilities. The ones that can't keep up have a harder time. They have to keep up. Their parents demand they keep up. And of course, you'll have casualties.

"I was talking with a lawyer friend recently, and he was grumbling that the younger lawyers he sees are much more aggressive and competitive and they don't need to be.

"When you have a childhood that, instead of going out into the fields and playing by the stream and poking into things and reading books, is a pressure-cooker from the time you enter preschool, you grow up in aggressive mode. While that will help you get ahead, it's going to do a number on personal relationships."

It's important to realize that sports and extracurricular activities aren't bad in and of themselves. Far from it. But moderation is key.

"What you need to ask is, are they supplanting the things we should be doing as a family," says child psychiatrist and author Rosenfeld. "To have the energy and good humor that parents need to nurture their children, they must have a life, too.

"The greatest skill, and the hardest to develop, is the self-confidence that you're the best parent your kids are going to have. In the end, you're the one who has to make the decisions and take the responsibility."

As Rosenfeld is fond of saying, "Parenting is a higher calling than being a cruise ship activities director."

As an admissions dean, Brown offers this piece of advice to the Class of 2012 -- well, not to the students themselves, but to their parents: "Let them be kids."

"If you can pay attention as a parent and help them discern an interest or two, then do what you can to nurture that," Brown says.

"I have the privilege of serving on panels with representatives from Ivy League schools. I have never heard an Ivy League representative say you have to be involved in half a dozen things and have to be president of four of them. I have heard them say, ‘Find stuff that really interests you, and make a difference.' ''

WARNING SIGNS OF STRESS

Young children and teens who feel overpressured can develop classic signs of stress: anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, unexplained stomach aches, avoiding school.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reports on a survey by the American College Health Association that 61 percent of college students had feelings of hopelessness during the previous academic year and 45 percent felt so depressed they had trouble functioning.

Several studies have linked feelings of anxiety and depression with a drive for perfection. In addition, the AAP reports, this drive for perfection may be driving the increase in cheating in high school and college.

The AAP has a Web site -- www.aap.org/stress -- where teens can set up a personalized stress-reduction plan. Parents can check out resources and read excerpts from two AAP books, A Parent's Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens and Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond.

TIPS FOR CUTTING BACK

Limit activities. Cut back just one or two nights a week. Or consider setting rules such as one sport per child per season. Before signing up for anything new, consider the cost in time and energy to the whole family.

Make family a priority. If your family is too busy to hang out together, if you and your spouse hardly ever spend time alone together, adjustments need to be made.

Be unproductive. Shoot hoops, take walks, play games, sit and talk, read. The fact that you the parent enjoy spending time with your child with no apparent goal lets her know you find her more interesting than just about anything else in the world.

Remember that childhood's a preparation, not a performance. By definition, children are immature and should not be expected to perform to adult standards. Resist the pressure from coaches and the media that tells you how to push your child to excel early.

Leave empty spaces on your calendar. Parents worry about kids' boredom, so they schedule their lives to keep them busy. But empty hours teach children how to create their own happiness.

Trust yourself. Don't believe the experts who tell you they know how you ought to raise your child. When it comes to your family, you are the expert.

SOURCE: Alvin Rosenfeld, author of The Over-Scheduled Child, from his Website.

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