Too much too young? Are we over-ac­ti­vat­ing our chil­dren?

When it comes down to it, how im­por­tant are sports and ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties for so­cial­is­ing and ex­er­cise?

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Lifestyle - Alana Kirk

What­ever hap­pened to the week­end? The has­sled par­ents who seem to spend all their time off be­ing chauf­feurs and cheer­lead­ers, fer­ry­ing var­i­ous over-sched­uled off­spring to a myr­iad of mind-bog­gling ac­tiv­i­ties that de­mand se­ri­ous com­mit­ment, won­der­ing what hap­pened to their own lives, of­ten ask this ques­tion.

Week­ends used to be the time a fam­ily spent to­gether, re­lax­ing af­ter a hard week of school and work. Now it can be a fraught fire­fight to man­age a chaotic calendar of ac­tiv­i­ties.

Over-ac­ti­vat­ing our chil­dren has be­come a much-ma­ligned prob­lem, with con­cerns that they are ric­o­chet­ing from one ac­tiv­ity to an­other with­out enough down­time. Amid this crit­i­cism, how­ever, are we miss­ing the ben­e­fit of al­low­ing chil­dren to ex­per­i­ment and ex­pe­ri­ence a va­ri­ety of ac­tiv­i­ties?

At my chil­dren’s pri­mary school alone, there is bas­ket­ball, yoga, French, art, cheer­lead­ing and Ir­ish danc­ing on of­fer, to name but a few ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties.

The pop­u­lar­ity of GAA clubs and other sports for girls and boys is vis­i­ble in our parks and sports grounds ev­ery week­end, and the phe­nom­e­nal rise in pop­u­lar­ity of gym­nas­tics and stage schools shows a strong ap­petite for learn­ing skills not taught in school.

The pres­sure to par­take can come from par­ents and chil­dren alike. Many kids drive the sched­ule be­cause they have a se­vere case of FOMO (fear of miss­ing out). Or maybe it is the par­ents who feel they have to con­stantly en­ter­tain their chil­dren be­cause of guilt or com­pet­i­tive pres­sure from other par­ents.

De­cid­ing on the balance of ac­tiv­i­ties can be a fraught ex­pe­ri­ence, but not find­ing that balance can leave ev­ery­one phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally ex­hausted, and fam­ily time sched­uled out of the calendar.

Screen ac­tiv­i­ties

“We’ve heard from teenagers who barely have 10 un­sched­uled min­utes in a day be­tween school, home­work, re­vi­sion and ac­tiv­i­ties,” says Naoise Ka­vanagh, com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager of Rea­chout.com, the on­line men­tal health re­source for young peo­ple and par­ents.

Of­ten the small amounts of time young peo­ple do have is taken up with screen ac­tiv­i­ties, in which they are still “on” with their peers.

Rea­chout re­cently con­ducted an on­line sur­vey on men­tal health; more than 2,500 young peo­ple aged be­tween 15 and 19 re­sponded. The top cause of stress was ex­ams, fol­lowed by the pres­sures of school, body image and so­cial me­dia.

“The most im­por­tant thing you can do is de­cide as a fam­ily what is the best balance,” says Ka­vanagh. “It’s im­por­tant to build in py­jama days and down­time, even if they also have to be sched­uled in.”

With­out much fore­thought, we have moved from a time when chil­dren were left to their own de­vices to now be­ing left to play with de­vices and ac­tiv­i­ties, which means that proper down­time is lim­ited. Like most as­pects of par­ent­ing, find­ing a balance is key.

While over-sched­ul­ing can be harm­ful, there are also enor­mous ben­e­fits to in­volv­ing chil­dren in ac­tiv­i­ties out­side of school. They en­cour­age and teach so­cial skills and are op­por­tu­ni­ties for play and ex­er­cise while learn­ing sports­man­ship, self-dis­ci­pline and con­flict res­o­lu­tion.

The key is to keep them fun and en­sure that the kids – and their par­ents – aren’t over­whelmed.

Form­ing con­nec­tions

“If school isn’t a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence for chil­dren, and for many it is not, then form­ing con­nec­tions out­side of that sphere is re­ally im­por­tant for build­ing con­fi­dence and self-es­teem,” says Ka­vanagh.

How­ever, “you can’t do ev­ery­thing. Ev­ery­one, es­pe­cially chil­dren and teenagers, needs time to process their day and their feel­ings.”

Rea­chout’s ex­pe­ri­ence with young peo­ple has shown that they of­ten ap­pre­ci­ate set bound­aries. And while chil­dren may fight to have more screen or ac­tiv­ity time, of­ten will of­ten ad­mit to be­ing re­lieved when it is curbed. What they want, and what they need, might not al­ways be the same thing.

As par­ents, it seems we have to ques­tion whether the ob­ses­sion with con­stant dis­trac­tions is down to our own anx­i­eties.

“The main thing I would ques­tion when de­cid­ing on an ac­tiv­ity is, what is its func­tion?” says Sean O’Con­nell, a coun­selling psy­chol­o­gist who works with chil­dren. “If you’re a par­ent, ask why are you en­cour­ag­ing this – for peer sup­port, ex­er­cise or as a use­ful babysit­ting tool?”

Al­low­ing fam­ily time such as meals to be curbed at the ex­pense of in­di­vid­ual ac­tiv­i­ties can be dam­ag­ing. The key is to sched­ule hob­bies and sports in mod­er­a­tion and choose ac­tiv­i­ties with a child’s age, tem­per­a­ment, in­ter­ests and abil­i­ties in mind. Then it’s all about set­ting rea­son­able lim­its on ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties and mak­ing them more en­joy­able for all.

“What it re­ally just boils down to is if the child en­joys it, but you can see where the fun be­comes pres­sure,” Dr O’Con­nell says. “Chil­dren learn from par­ents, so it is so im­por­tant for par­ents to foster the idea that do­ing noth­ing oc­ca­sion­ally is a good thing.

“That’s not to knock hob­bies and sports, but to get down to the child’s level and ask why it is the child seek­ing it out. Is it be­cause ev­ery­one else is do­ing it, or be­cause they en­joy it? Al­ways ask: ‘What’s the func­tion of this?’”

Ac­ces­si­ble ev­ery­thing Ac­cord­ing to the psy­chol­o­gist, par­tic­i­pat­ing in ac­tiv­i­ties should be child-led, not par­ent-driven, but it is en­tirely up to par­ents to set bound­aries. “It’s im­por­tant that chil­dren aren’t taught that ev­ery­thing is ac­ces­si­ble and that all your time needs to be filled.”

Ka­vanagh agrees. “Bor­ing as it sounds, mod­er­a­tion is the best way for­ward. In­clud­ing chil­dren and young peo­ple in the fam­ily de­ci­sion-mak­ing process is key to mak­ing sure they have a say, but that they also un­der­stand there might be big­ger pri­or­i­ties at play.”

Find­ing the balance be­tween what ac­tiv­i­ties chil­dren want to do along­side in­di­vid­ual and fam­ily needs can be tricky, but work­ing it out to­gether will al­low ev­ery­one in the fam­ily to take a breath in the midst of the weekly calendar.

As par­ents, it seems we have to ques­tion whether the ob­ses­sion with con­stant dis­trac­tions for our chil­dren is down to our own anx­i­eties

Soc­cer train­ing? Yes I can fit in a half-hour ses­sion on Mon­day . . .

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