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Published July 30, 2012, 11:30 PM

Parenting Perspectives: Balancing kids’ activities

I don’t want to bum you out. Really, I don’t. But our summer days are numbered.

By: Tracy Briggs, INFORUM

I don’t want to bum you out. Really, I don’t. But our summer days are numbered. We’re about a month away from the start of school. While we’re still enjoying hot summer days at the pool or lake, a few of us are forced to look ahead and get the kids signed up for fall activities.

Sometimes it takes mad skills just to figure out the daily logistics of carting the kids off to soccer, baseball, ballet or junior jujitsu. But it’s not just logistics that worry me. I question whether I’m overscheduling my kids. How am I supposed to know? After all, I’m from the generation that spent much of our afterschool hours watching “Gilligan’s Island.”

I wish there was an easy answer to “how much is too much?” I nearly burned up Google searching for it. I wanted a formula of some kind to help me figure it out. Something like “7-year-olds should only be in one extracurricular activity, but 10-year-olds can handle three.” Nope. No such luck. You have to know parenting couldn’t be that easy.

Instead, I found some common themes in the research I read. The experts suggest we ask ourselves a few questions regarding our children and ourselves before we sign them up for afterschool activities:

1. Does the child show genuine interest in the activity and is willing to commit to practices or rehearsals and not just the games or performances? Is this something you’re pushing them to do? We all know how hard it can be to get a kid out the door in the dead of winter to do something they really don’t want to do.

2. Does the child have a handle on schoolwork? Are they struggling to keep up? If so, there’s nothing wrong with waiting for the child to mature before undertaking a sport or activity.

Parents often feel pressure to get their kids active in a sport before the child is emotionally and intellectually ready. That sport will still be there in a few years, but educational opportunities don’t always wait.

3. How much downtime does my child need? Does he or she get cranky without time to just relax after school? Will it stress them out to be committed to something two, three or four days a week?

4. Will these activities put a strain on family finances, parents’ work schedule or family time? It’s a hard reality. Many parents want to give their kids everything, but if it breaks the bank to sign Caden or Emma up for an all-star soccer team, takes parents away from work too often, or takes away from quality time spent together, it’s simply not worth it, financially and otherwise.

Armed with what the experts said, I wanted to hear from real parents. So I asked my Facebook friends, “How do you decide how many activities your child should take?”

I heard from parents who insisted “kids should be kids” and said to keep extracurriculars at a bare minimum.

Others touted the benefits of getting children more heavily involved in activities. “It keeps them out of trouble,” and “my child learns responsibility, discipline and skills that help him in his school work and everyday life.”

Others gave me real strategies for activity planning. Here are some of the more frequently suggested ones:

  1. Only sign your child up for an activity after another one has ended. For example, when soccer ends in October, it’s fine to sign your child up for figure skating.

  2. Each child is allowed to have one arts/music activity and one physical activity/sport per semester. These parents feel that makes for the most well-rounded kid.

  3. Do your very best to get siblings in activities at the same place at the same time. Yeah, that’s a tough one and can be difficult if your children have varying interests, but it’s a beautiful thing when it works. For example, one Facebook friend of mine touts church choir. Her children are in one place at one time, it’s free and enriching.

  4. Expose them to lots when they’re little, but let them be the ones to decide what stays and what goes when they’re older. Really listen to them. Only they know what drives them.

At the same time, it’s OK to be a little pushy. Most of us don’t aspire to be over-the-top stage moms or obnoxious hockey dads, but it’s OK to nudge the kids a little or to insist they take up an activity that you know is good for them.

I love the story one Facebook friend told me about her children wanting to quit piano lessons. She said they could if, and only if, they could find three adults to sign notes saying they were glad their mother let them quit piano/flute/violin. As you can imagine, that wasn’t easy to find.

In the end, there is no magic formula to know if your child is over-scheduled, but the answer might actually be pretty simple. As is the case for many parenting dilemmas, it seems to boil down to trusting your gut.

You know your child and family situation. Do what you think is best. If it’s not working, reassess and move on. Most likely no matter what you decide about activities, you won’t scar your children for life. After all, we recovered from Gilligan, right?

Tracy Briggs is a mother of two and is an employee of Forum Communications Co.