I wish that it was make-believe, like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. But the phenomenon of parents over-scheduling their kids' lives and stealing their childhood is all too real. Many parents fill up their kids' lives with one "enrichment activity" after another, starting in the early preschool years, all in an effort to help them "get a leg up" so that they will eventually gain admittance to a top-ranked college.
The mindset seems to be: "It's never too early to beginning assembling your children's success portfolio. Enroll your three-year-old in an academically challenging, preparatory preschool that emphasizes reading readiness. Sign up your eight-year-old for an intensive six weeks of basketball summer camp, where you're guaranteed that it's basketball -- and -- basketball only from dawn to far beyond dusk. Make them smart. Train them to be the best in one sport. You have to start early. That college application clock is ticking."
There isn't much time for our kids to have "free time": unstructured time, time to dream, time to discover -- and yes, to even become a little bored once in a while. Parents have convinced themselves that the only productive way for their kids to play is in a structured, adult-supervised program. Kids whose lives are so tightly structured and scheduled are not learning how to feel comfortable on their own, alone with their imagination, free to pursue their natural curiosities and sense of wonder, encouraged to become resourceful, self-reliant and resilient. Parents are adding more and more activities to their children's lives, behaving like business managers trying to get more productivity out of their work force. But your family is not your corporation and your children are not your employees.
Whatever happened to play for its own sake? Why have serious, goal-oriented, skill-building, adult-managed activities and programs replaced the freedom and carefree laughter of backyards, parks, fields, and swimming holes? Because many parents believe that the presence of free, unstructured, unsupervised time for their children is the equivalent of wasted time, missed meaningful opportunities, and a reflection of poor parenting. They believe this in spite of recent scientific research that supports the theory that self-initiated, unstructured creative play is the single most important activity that young children can engage in to develop at all developmental levels, including neurological and cognitive growth.
Professionally, I have seen more and more young children experiencing stress-related psychosomatic symptoms -- headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, anxiety attacks -- caused by pressure and over-scheduling. If you believe the parents of these children, their kids love juggling all these activities and wouldn't know what to do without them. I've heard a different tale. Their children have confided in me that they wish their parents would just let them "hang out" some of the time, so that they wouldn't always have to be busy, rushing from one extra-curricular activity to another, all the time thinking that if they don't that they'll disappoint their parents -- and worse, that they won't "make it" in life. Rushed, hurried, anxious parents are turning their children into mini-versions of themselves. A childhood should be every child's birthright. Let's stop stealing it.