Friday, September 04, 2009

The Myth of the Overscheduled Child

I have another back-to-school piece, this one featuring 2009 Davidson Fellow Erika DeBenedictis, on the Taste Page of the Wall Street Journal this morning. The essay is called "The Myth of the Overscheduled Child" and makes the point that many kids like being challenged and busy. And, often, it's quite good for them to be so! We are happiest when we are throwing ourselves into meaningful projects (like practicing with a sports team to improve, or doing independent computer science research) and making progress. Unfortunately, vast proportions of American teens never get to do any of this.

Anyway, it's been a busy week of back-to-school pieces, but we'll be back to specific gifted coverage next week.


Anonymous said...

Great piece in the WSJ!
I tried to order your book, but it looks like it's not listed yet on Amazon. When will "168 Hours" be published?

Jeremy said... seems to me that much of the hand-wringing about overscheduled kids has been focused on middle-class (and upper) preteens, and even preschoolers. I think there's legitimate pushback on this front, with the goal of giving younger children more time for unstructured play, time with the families and downtime to read and rest.

The somewhat snarky tone of the article seems to condemn anyone who might have ever worried about their tired, stressed-out 8-year-old niece who is has math tutoring, soccer, piano lessons, drama club, riding lessons, and does hours of homework. I don't hear many people worrying about their teenagers being too busy -- more likely the opposite.

By the time kids get into high school, they tend to be making more independent decisions about their time, and the keeners have always found ways to fill up their schedules. I think you're right to point out that we should be more concerned about teenagers who don't have much on the go, but let's not confuse this with trying to get young kids into more activities...

Laura Vanderkam said...

To anonymous: please hold that thought! The book's publication date is May 27, 2009. You can check out my blog about it,, for more info on the book and when it will be available.

kcab said...

I agree with Jeremy - the "scolds" (come *on* now, Laura, you are better than that!) are focused on younger children, not teens.

Cheryl said...

When people, including me, talk about "overscheduled children," I don't think we're speaking of teens. It's the younger set, who are shuttled from one activity to another, signed up by parents who are trying to keep them well rounded, and who I see in my 4th grade class falling asleep with their heads on their desks and stressing out about all they have to do.

When do these kids get to read, explore, find their own interests? Answer: they don't. I've purposely NOT over-scheduled my gifted kid. He's scheduled his own time with things he's interested in: building robots, learning quantum physics. He might not have discovered his interests if I'd not let him have time to explore. Or sleep.

The teenager you opened your story with scheduled herself. She wasn't being forced into the schedule by her parents, and she's old enough to be independent and get or carpool herself places rather than taking over the family schedule with away-from-home chauffeuring and supervision duties. Big difference.

Jeremy said...

What do you think, Laura? Did we miss something in thinking that you exploited widespread concern over overscheduled pre-teens and elementary-school kids as a sort of strawman argument for your theory that most teens aren't overscheduled?

Laura Vanderkam said...

Jeremy- The Panel Study of Income Dynamics has info on children ages 5-11 as well. They spend less time on homework (3.1 hours per week or about 27 minutes per day) than teens. They spend 1.0 hours on "organizations" and 2.2 hours on sports.

As for unstructured time, they spend 10.5 hours playing which is the biggest leisure activity besides (guess what?) watching television. The PSID puts the TV number at 14 hours per week, though Nielsen puts it higher. They sleep more than 10 hours per night, which I think is relatively close to the recommendation.

As I said in the article, I'm sure you can find a few children who do too much. But they are not the average -- either among teens or younger children.

Jeremy said...

Considering those average numbers, we know that many are doing more and many are doing less (for teens too). So if the average kid is doing three hours of homework and three hours of extracurricular activities, the ones I'm seeing (mid-upper class, mostly white) are doing closer to twice that much -- not including after-school childcare, which should be seen as another scheduled activity. Many of these kids are scheduled (including school) from 7am to 7pm, and I suppose they may be getting some TV time before bed.

Your "scolds" think that's excessive, and I'll include myself in their numbers. Your point that many kids (including in this younger group) may be underscheduled and wasting more of their time on TV is also likely true, and there's no reason why both points could have been articulated and supported in the same article.