While having my hair cut, my barber talked with me about over-scheduled children. He wondered how parents kept up with all of the activities. Parents wonder the same thing. In my office, parents question whether they should be taking kids to soccer practice, music lessons, robotics, church, and Sunday school. If their child is serious about sports, shouldn’t they have a coach or play club sports when school sports end for the year? When do families get to eat a home-cooked meal or sit down together for a meal? When do children study, and how in the world can the kid have any free time? When do they get to run around in the yard or play with children in the neighborhood? Blend families with biological and stepchildren, splitting time with parents and doubling the number of activities supported just with transportation. You can see why you would need a shared calendar across devices just to keep up. How did our society become so inundated with activities our children need? When can they possibly fit into school studies? Why are most of them sleep-deprived?
In 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned that we should “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence” of the “military-industrial complex.” That seemed odd coming from a General. After all, didn’t we need a strong military to protect us from the evil ones in other countries? He talked about influence from congress members and large companies employing thousands of citizens benefitting from government contracts to supply equipment and services to keep us safe from harm. Blend in our well-founded fear that dictators can do bad things and that we need to protect ourselves, and the lines between what we need and what we want becoming blurred. What does the military-industrial complex have to do with being a parent keeping up with children’s activities?
Maybe the military-industrial complex is a poor metaphor for the economic and social engines that pull parents and kids into a never-ending list of opportunities. Parents should guard against the child development industrial complex. This advice may seem odd coming from a clinical mental health counselor. After all, don’t we need opportunities for our children in STEM, sports, music, dance, camp, church, and service to the community to become good citizens and become responsible and productive adults? Parents and kids are influenced by messages from teachers, coaches, peers, churches, Nike, Adidas, travel ball, orchestra, art and science camps, millions of people employed and volunteering to supply clothing, equipment, and services, and our desire for our children to have the benefits that accrue to those who participate.
Books and journal articles have been written on sleep-deprived, over-busy children, and over-scheduled children. Mix in electronic devices, and it’s no wonder Alabama parents reported ADHD diagnosed in children in 2011 at 14%. Isn’t 14% a severe health problem? Before we become parents, we need to reflect on our values to prepare us better to contend with the large, well-meaning enterprise that sucks parents and kids into the activities they “need” so they can “fit” into the “right” groups and be ready for whatever opportunities may come available to them. We need to guard against the child development industrial complex.
Do you over-scheduled children? How much do you value your influence as a parent? Do you talk with your children? Do you know how to have a conversation without a lecture? Who are the coaches, the tutors, the youth volunteers, and the leaders with whom you entrust your child? Do you want to know if these people share your values and with whom your child could have a serious conversation? Are you investing your weekend time traveling to dance or sports competitions because you believe the experience will lead to a college scholarship for your child? What impacts those activities on school performance, sleep deprivation, building friendships, and faith development? Any seemingly infinite number of activities can be good or bad, but parents would do well to weigh the costs and benefits. Too much church commitment can be a bad thing as too much sport or too much music, or too much video gaming.
Parents should guard against being unwittingly influenced by the child development industrial complex leading to over-scheduled children. Sitting in front of a screen as a family isn’t necessarily family time. Remember, the human brain responds to activity by building neural pathways. What kind of attention do you choose to strengthen in you and your child? Not choosing is choosing to pay attention to something.
David Barnhart, EdD
Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor