Friday, October 17, 2003

Balancing time for play, school, family

Parents need to ensure children aren't stretched too thin to avoid burnout

By Katy Scott
The Arizona Republic

After much thought, Laurie Beth Pool decided her schedule just couldn't give.

Balancing schoolwork, music and family was enough. There wasn't room for softball.

At 13, Laurie Beth is one of a generation of children learning what it took most Americans to figure out after they finished college and got their first full-time job: how to split time among work, play and family.

With extracurricular options as varied as soccer, basketball, piano, violin, painting and photography, kids today are struggling to find the time for schoolwork and family, much less relaxation. And parents are struggling to keep their children from burning out before they hit puberty.

Downtime essential

"A child needs downtime to play," says Kathleen Waldron, who teaches parenting classes at Arizona State University West.

She says that's one reason several families limit their children to one athletic and one artistic endeavor at a time. Laurie Beth and her three siblings - Aaron, 14, Rachel, 9, and Elizabeth, 8 - are allowed just one extracurricular activity, not including school clubs, per semester.

That's helped the Pool children handle their high-wire scheduling act, as has an intricate organizational system set up by their mom, Nancy.

"Paper and pencil is a huge tool in this house," says Nancy, who in addition to being the master scheduler of the family, volunteers at her children's three schools. It's nonstop activity at the Pool house with two children attending the neighborhood elementary school.

If the children need something from the store, they're responsible for adding it to the proper list, whether it be the grocery list, the Target list or the Home Depot list. Each child has a magnetic clip on the refrigerator, with permission slips, party invitations, IOUs, anything their parents need to know about.

At least once a week, over dinner, they pull out the family calendar and figure out who needs to be where when. Piano lessons for Laurie Beth and Elizabeth. Soccer for Rachel. Cross country for Aaron.

But not all families are as organized. Waldron says that too often, kids are stretched too thin among a variety of structured activities or become so obsessed with just one that they burn out.

When it it too much?

So how much is too much?

"Parents need to ask themselves: Does my child seem content?" Waldron says.

The key is striking a balance. Children shouldn't be tired. They should get decent grades. They should have family time. And their lives shouldn't revolve around one activity, particularly if that activity is a sport.

Parents can sometimes push their kids too hard in sports, Waldron says, hoping for college scholarships or professional contracts.

To some extent, parents can let their children pick and choose activities, even when they're as young as 5.

Waldron says parents should guide their children by outlining concerns. But because younger kids don't have the experience to understand the sacrifices they'll have to make, they often want to do everything.

Let them try, Waldron advises.

In the end, though, parents do need to stress family time.

Nancy and husband Bill Pool, for example, vetoed a gymnastics class that was held during the dinner hour.

"It's really important for parents to look at the family's life as a whole," Waldron says. "Sometimes, you have to make sacrifices, but ask, 'Is it having any truly negative effects on the family?' "

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