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T-ball, tumbling and trombone .... How do parents decide where to draw the line when it comes to extracurriculars?

Parents feel pressure to sign their kids up for all of the things. But how much is too much? (Image: Getty Images; illustration by Rui Pu; animation by Joseph Riccobono)
Parents feel pressure to sign their kids up for all of the things. But how much is too much? (Image: Getty Images; illustration by Rui Pu; animation by Joseph Riccobono)

It starts innocently enough, with a precious little outing on Sunday afternoons to T-ball games, with 4-year-olds doing cartwheels and taking naps in the outfield. But fast forward 10 years, and our children are bombarded with “opportunities,” from chess club to honors societies, band, baseball and everything you could imagine in between. Parents joke to me, as a mom of soon-to-be five kids under age 8, that my life will be over in just a few years, and I will take on the new role of chauffeur. While I really don’t doubt it, I do wonder if it’s the best path. Will family dinners disappear at the expense of soccer tournaments and dance recitals? Will homework become a battle late into the evening after coming home exhausted from a rehearsal? Walking the fine line between involved and over-involved impacts the whole family, not just the child.

Melinda Wenner Moyer, a mom of two and author of How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t A**holes, recently explored this complex topic in her newsletter, interviewing leading sociologists and other experts about just what our kids do, and don’t, need to thrive in terms of extracurricular and enrichment activities. She drew from her own recent experience, in which her daughter started to feel overbooked and overwhelmed, warranting a step back to reexamine priorities.

After signing up for travel soccer, dance class, piano and acting, she was “really stressed out,” Moyer tells Yahoo Life, noting that her daughter wasn’t able to start homework until after dinner, and got exhausted. “She didn’t have a lot of downtime on certain days, and I think that was adding to her exhaustion,” the journalist shares. “She would go to bed and be like, ‘oh my gosh tomorrow’s a crazy day’ and it would just kind of stress her out, thinking through what was coming.”

Moyer is far from alone in trying to balance the costs and benefits of signing kids up for activities. Here’s what to consider..

The benefits

For my kids, the most glaringly obvious benefit of an enrichment activity is that if they are learning various Tae Kwon Do kicks, they aren’t on their iPads, and that’s a mom-win any day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that kids ages 11 to 14 spend nine hours on their screens daily, causing potential issues from mental health conditions to social struggles. (It’s worth noting, of course, that the pandemic has popularized activities that do take place over Zoom or involve screens, which may factor into whether or not a parent considers it a good fit for their child.)

But traditional extracurriculars often involve movement, whether it’s getting outside for a run with the track team, or social engagement, such as problem-solving at robotics club. Both this physical activity and social-emotional engagement are also essential for kids’ development and success. With each of my kids, I had to weigh how much they were moving, and hanging out with friends, with and without activities being the source. One son will move for hours on his own in the front yard, without any push to do so, while another would stay inside, on the couch, as long as physically possible if I let him. This shows just how individual the answer to “how many activities, which activities and at what age?” question might be.

“Studies have shown that adolescents who participated in extracurricular activities reported lower levels of anxiety, fewer depressive symptoms and expressed higher levels of optimism and satisfaction with life,” says Michelle Felder, a licensed social worker, therapist and parenting coach in Queens, N.Y. The founder of Parenting Pathfinders and a mom of two children, Felder also points to a sense of belonging children get from being on a team, especially as they have to cooperate with others and learn leadership skills. “Many of the social and emotional skills that children develop through participating in enrichment activities have been shown to stick with them as they grow and continue to positively impact them into adulthood," she says.

In addition to picking up new skills, your child (and sometimes you) might find your “village” through extracurriculars, though it’s not the only place that’s possible.

And when it’s just too much for them

If activities become stressors for kids, the benefits wane, and the mental health effects point to a much different outcome. Parents think that they have to help their kids find their one true passion early on, even specializing in one sport, but statistics show it’s very unlikely that their (or their child’s) massive athletic dreams will ever come true — only 2% of college athletes move on to the pros, for example.

Felder says this is a line each family has to find for themselves.

“It can be tricky to figure out how much is too much,” she says. “Every family is different.”

She recommends asking yourself the following questions, or asking your child if they are old enough to determine how much is too much:

  • Are there aspects of your child’s life that are being negatively impacted by their extracurricular activities?

  • Are they having difficulty keeping up with their homework?

  • Are they missing spending dinner or other family time together?

  • Have their friendships suffered?

  • Are they excessively tired or unable to get an adequate amount of sleep at night?

  • Are they neglecting themselves or other activities because of a lack of time?

  • Are you noticing multiple signs of stress as their activities increase, like elevated levels of agitation, muscle tension and pain, low energy, insomnia, teeth grinding, increased moodiness or a significant change in their appetite (either over- or under-eating)?

“If the answer to any of these questions is 'yes,' I encourage you to take a close look at all aspects of your child's life and consider where a shift needs to be made," says Felder.

The pressure on parents

Social media has given parents the gift (and curse) of seeing just how many potential activities our children could be a part of, but aren’t. It can feel like you're behind as a parent if your 6-year-old isn't playing the violin, or fluent in a second language. This can be draining, both logistically and emotionally, to constantly worry if you are doing enough, and if your kid should be squeezing more learning into their day.

The pressure isn’t just from your play date group’s tendency to compare. Parents who have the best colleges in mind from an early age also might inadvertently pressure kids into doing too much.

“A lot of parents are thinking about college admissions," Moyer notes. "Test scores have become much less important in recent years which means that colleges are paying a lot more attention to the whole child, and extracurriculars." As a result, parents are under pressure to sign kids up for, say, Russian math, Mandarin or field hockey lessons to help them "stand out."

Even those who aren’t worried about college just yet might be inclined to help their kids try new things, and to increase their exposure to learning opportunities, which was the case for Moyer’s daughter, who she calls “curious.”

The financial toll

There's also the exorbitant cost of activities to consider.

One Tik Tok mama recently broke down the cost, which she says can “add up quickly.” “Right now in my budget monthly, I budget $500 to $1,000 depending on what’s going on … and that’s one hour a week per kid,” mom of four SheIsaPaigeTurner told followers in a post that went viral late last year. “Then you add on things that are almost a necessity — swim lessons. My kids need to know how to swim, and I feel very strongly that I don’t want them to drown … $100 bucks per kid per month, for a half-hour lesson once per week.” While she acknowledges the drive to “prepare kids for life,” she says that it’s causing parents to be drowning themselves, financially.

So not only do we have to make enough money to pay for these activities, we also have to be available enough to run kids to them all. An art class that's schedule for 4 p.m. on a weekday? Not off work yet. The only available swim lesson is at 9 a.m.? Working parents are out of luck again. These financial burdens extend the gap between those who can afford the time and money for activities, and those who can’t.

But expensive extracurriculars aren’t the only way kids can thrive, and that’s the secret no overbooked Instamom wants you to know. Felder, for example, looks to online learning experiences — which she has found to cost less, or even be free — for her own family.

“Virtual yoga, fitness and American Sign Language (ASL) classes are some online activities that my children have really enjoyed in the past," she says. "Currently, my children participate in dance and gymnastics, and my oldest daughter is a member of her school’s basketball team. We’ve found that one or two activities during the week and one on the weekend allows them to engage in the activities that they love while keeping our schedule manageable and the rest of their life feeling balanced.”

“Kids don’t need lots of high-priced activities to be well-rounded individuals. There is a lot of value in unstructured time and free activities that kids can partake in,” adds Jennifer Seitz, a certified financial education instructor (CFEI), director of education at family fintech company Greenlight and mom of three. She has some tips for easing the financial burden:

  • Weigh the value and true benefit of the activity versus the cost as a family. Older kids can even articulate some of the reasons they want to participate. For example, with an expensive sports program, ask if they need a more competitive league, or are they just looking for active recreation with their friends? There may be more affordable leagues or programs to consider.

  • Look at the family budget. Are there ways you can reduce family costs in another area to make room for a higher-priced activity? Parents shouldn’t be afraid to talk openly about the price of activities. You can also try one activity at a time, or book a free trial before committing.

  • Have kids be responsible for their own equipment or secondary costs. Lost uniforms and belongings can be expensive to replace. For example, if a child loses their soccer ball, it can be their responsibility to save up and pay for a replacement.

  • Consider hand-me-down gear. Look for resell groups where you can find outgrown gear (like sports uniforms) in usable condition, or rent an instrument rather than shelling out hundreds for something new.

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