Confronting the Culture of the Busy Child in Therapy

The Epidemic of Overscheduling Our Children

William Doherty

Once every decade or so, we therapists awaken from our cultural slumber to see a problem that previously had no name in our clinical lexicon. In previous decades, we came to see sexism and racism as problems deeply rooted in the larger culture and spreading tentacles into family and personal life in ways we could no longer ignore in our work. I have a nomination for the problem of this decade: for many kids, childhood is becoming a rat race of hyperscheduling, overbusyness, and loss of family time. The problem is all around us, but we haven't noticed how many of our children, especially middle-class kids, need daily planners to manage their schedules of soccer, hockey, piano, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, baseball, football, karate, gymnastics, dance, violin, band, craft clubs, foreign-language classes, academic-enrichment courses, and religious activities. Parents have become recreation directors on the family cruise ship.

This fast-tracking of childhood is fairly new on the cultural landscape, having come upon us in the last two decades or so. A national time-diary survey conducted by the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center in 1981 and 1997 has documented this change in children's schedules and family activities. During those 16 years, children lost 12 hours per week in free time, including a 25 percent drop in playtime and a 50 percent drop in unstructured outdoor activities. During the same period, time in structured sports doubled and "passive, spectator leisure" (watching siblings and others play and perform) increased sixfold---from half an hour per week to more than three hours. Time spent on homework increased by 50 percent.

Partly as a consequence of children's new schedules, families spend less time interacting. According to the same survey, household conversations between parents and children---time for just talking and not doing anything else---nearly dropped off the radar screen of family life. Another national survey plotted a one-third decrease in the number of families even claiming to have family dinners regularly.

For a new book, therapist Ron Taffel, one of our best observers of youth culture, interviewed 150 children attending preschool through sixth grade, and found that the one wish expressed by nearly every child was that their parents spend more time with them. Some of this "time famine" stems from a problem familiar to therapists---parents' having to work more hours and more jobs. But another, unnamed and insidious, factor is also at work: the overscheduling of kids.

The national Adolescent Health Study of American teenagers found a strong link between regular family meals and a wide range of positive outcomes: academic success, psychological adjustment, and lower rates of alcohol use, drug use, early sexual behavior, and suicide. On the flip side, not having regular family meals was associated with higher risks in all those areas. The University of Michigan study of children's time found that more meal time at home was the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was far more powerful than time spent in school, studying, going to church, playing sports, or doing art activities. Results held across all types of families and all income levels.

Overscheduled Lives

The big picture behind this phenomenon is that the adult world of hypercompetition and marketplace values has invaded the family. Parents love their children as much as previous generations did, but we're raising our children in a culture that defines a good parent as an opportunity provider in a competitive world. This is parenting as product development, with insecure parents never knowing when they've done enough. Keeping our children busy at least means they're in the game and we're doing our job.

Naming the Problem

As clinicians, we influence clients and the wider culture by what we ask about in the therapy room---and by what we choose not to ask about. We have to start inquiring about kids' schedules, and not just our usual suspect---parent work schedules. Does Johnny have any time to hang out and be a kid? Could his ADD be exacerbated by scheduled family hyperactivity? Does Linda ever have the chance to eat a leisurely meal with her parents and siblings?

It's like with sex, money, and race---if we don't ask, our clients usually don't tell. Through our curiosity, we signal what's appropriate to talk about in therapy. The key is to raise these questions first from a cultural perspective, not a clinical perspective. The key is to put the problem on the table in a nonjudgmental way and make it legitimate to talk about.

Needless to say, we have our own homework to do as therapists before we can be change agents with our clients and within the larger culture. Solidly middle class by dint of our education (if not always our income!), we're swimming in the same river as our clients, teaching our kids multiple swimming strokes, searching for the best instructors, and hoping for that college scholarship at the end of the pool. But if we're prepared to do our own soul-searching, we can stop conspiring with our clients and our culture, and start sounding the alarm in our offices.

If we touch a chord in parents' experience, they'll resonate and feel more empowered to speak up for their children and families. Cultural change occurs one conversation after another, in ripples that we can help start and keep spreading.

This blog is excerpted from “See How They Run. " Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Children/Adolescents | Parenting

Tags: add | behavioral problems | conversation | families | family | hyperactivity | kids | loss | overscheduling | parents | psychotherapy | Ron Taffel | sex | success | suicide | talking | teenagers | therapist

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