Overscheduled Kids

'gymnastics' photo (c) 2006, Tod Baker - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario. Here’s this week’s!

A fundamental premise of Economics is that everything has an opportunity cost. If I buy a chocolate bar, I’m not buying a pop with that money. But while we’re used to opportunity cost when it comes to money, we don’t tend to think of it when it comes to time. And yet the time crunch can be just as acute as the budget crunch. When you schedule your own lives, or your kids’ lives, with many activities, you’re simultaneously denying yourselves whatever else you could have done with that time.

So much for Economics. Now let’s turn to Math and calculate how much disposable time the average mom with school-aged kids has in the course of a week. Weekday mornings, before school, with the chaotic rush are a write off. Kids get home around 4, and most are in bed by 9, so that leaves five hours per weekday, assuming parents are home that whole time. On the weekends, let’s give you twelve hours a day. Over the course of the week, that adds up to forty-nine hours. For comparison’s sake, the kids spend about forty hours in school and with school peers. So it’s almost even.

But if you subtract an hour a day for chores and hygiene, an hour each weekday for homework, four hours a week for meetings or time with other adults, and the two hours a day minimum the average child spends in front of a screen, you’re down to about nineteen hours a week. In those nineteen hours you have to teach them to become independent, to be responsible, to not give in to peer pressure, to handle money well, to be nice to their friends, and to get along with their siblings. That’s a heavy task.

That’s why I’m adamant about family time. It is more important than sports lessons, music lessons, or even extra academic work. And the more time your child spends away from your family, the more time he or she spends immersed in a culture which is often anti-family, consumer oriented, and shallow.

I was talking with some parents who have their daughters in competitive skating. They’re at the rink four nights a week, all over the dinner hour. I asked one mom, “How do you ever eat as a family?” She laughed and admitted, “Oh, we don’t. We just grab food on the run.”

Their daughters may be enjoying skating, but when they’re adults, what will matter most is not whether or not they could land a double axel but whether or not they were emotionally healthy and responsible. And that kind of character is forged in the family. Teachers and coaches can help, but kids need their parents.

Let’s stop tying our kids to a schedule which denies them so much family time. They may enjoy it, but in the long run, what is the most important goal for you as a parent? Some families may be able to squeeze everything in, and more power to you if you succeed! But I have seen families who have thought they were doing it well, only to find fifteen years later that their kids really struggled. It’s a big risk. It may be one you want to take, because your child is gifted at something. Just realize it’s a risk. Count the cost first, so that you can be sure that you are doing everything you can to preserve your family life in the time you have left. But I hope most of you may choose just to hang out at home and maybe, occasionally, throw a football around together. Personally, I think that’s more rewarding.


  1. Sometimes families are in situations where time is taken from them in ways they can’t help. When I was in high school, it took three buses and a ferry just to get to school! If there had been a bridge from our island into town, it would have taken 15 minutes. Alas, no bridge.

    We’d often stay in town after school so we could attend things like synchronized swimming lessons, piano lessons, or youth group. Except for youth group nights, when we didn’t get home until 10pm, we were always home by 6:00pm, and we still ate dinner as a family.

  2. This message is so important. Last year, my husband and I decided our kids were overscheduled. We traded travel soccer (3-5 days a week) in for one evening of tennis. Now we have our family evenings back! We have dinner together every night, and even have time for family walks or games. We also didn’t like the trend of sports teams expecting attendance on Sundays as well as Saturdays. The TV doesn’t get turned on during the week, but homework sometimes takes more time than one hour in the evening.

    This year has been a big improvement, and the kids are happier with more free time as well.
    Lori Lowe, http://www.MarriageGems.com

  3. Jeannette says:

    I agree with you. But I’m curious (just for fun), how to do you balance your view with the example you gave of the competitive skaters? Clearly lots of time is involved to excel, even at just one thing. What advice would you give to parents of future stars whether athletes, musicians, intellectual geniuses etc. that all require significant time? Society pushes kids so early to be involved in things that if you’re starting your kid out at even age 4 or 5 they are probably too late to really excel (in some things), it seems and the older they get and more advanced more time is required. (And in my completely hypothetical question, let’s assume there is real talent in the child, not just a parent’s dream. :) )

    • Jeannette, I guess honestly I would question whether competitive skating is that important. I mean, the chances of them making the Olympics or something are so incredibly low, and I wonder, in the long run, if it is worth sacrificing family time for it. We made the decision to forego competitive gymnastics and competitive figure skating with our youngest, even though she is very talented, because it’s not what we wanted for us as a family. She still has fun with it as a hobby, but she didn’t want it to become her life.

      I know some people feel that they should pursue things if their children are really gifted, and there certainly is a role for that. But I would pray and question very, very hard, because it’s a big chance and a big sacrifice. That may be God’s plan, but I would make absolutely sure. Because you can lose a lot when kids have no family time!

  4. We often have dinner without my husband due to his schedule and my kids schedule to eat. I have sat with them since they were little. Since moving, I have to admit that I sit the kids down with their dinner and go and watch tv with mine. For the last week I have been again sitting with my kids and enjoying their company. Last night when I went to sit in front of the tv, my daughter in an authoritative voice told me to “sit at the table!” I did. It was a great reminder of how much they value that time together.

    • That’s a great girl you’ve got there! Isn’t it great how sometimes our kids are the ones who make us do the right thing?

  5. Amen! I think outside activities should be limited to 1, and that should take 1 night a week.

    Loving the parenting posts.
    Rachael recently posted…Talking to myself?My Profile

    • What we used to try to do was to schedule both kids’ stuff on the same night, but it got too difficult, too. What we’ve done this time is instead of making sure their activities are on the same night, we’ve reserved one night for family night, when we play games together. And we really try to have dinner together every night, even if some nights we have to eat after my oldest gets home from her part-time job!

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