While having my hair cut, my barber was talking with me about over-scheduled children. He wondered how parents keep up with all of the activities. Parents wonder the same thing. In my office parents question whether they should be taking kids to soccer practice, music lessons, robotics, church and Sunday school. If their child is serious about sports, shouldn’t they have a coach or play club sports when school sports end for the year? When do families get to eat a home cooked meal or sit down together for a meal? When do children study and how in the world can the kid have any free time? When do they get to run around in the yard or play with children in the neighborhood? Blend families with biological and stepchildren splitting time with parents and doubling the number of activities supported just with transportation, and you can see why you would need a calendar that is shared across devices just to keep up. How did our society become so inundated with activities our children need? When can they possibly fit in school studies? Why are most of them sleep deprived?
In 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned that we should “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence” of the “military industrial complex.” That seemed odd coming from a General. After all, didn’t we need a strong military to protect us from the evil ones in other countries? He was talking about influence from members of congress and large companies employing thousands of citizens benefitting from government contracts to supply equipment and services to keep us safe from harm. Blend in our well-founded fear that dictators can do bad things and the fact that we need to protect ourselves and the lines between what we need and what we want become blurred. What does the military industrial complex have to do with being a parent keeping up with children’s activities?
Maybe the military industrial complex is a poor metaphor for the economic and social engines that pull parents and kids into a never-ending list of opportunities. Parents should guard against the child development industrial complex. This may seem odd coming from a clinical mental health counselor. After all, don’t we need opportunities for our children in STEM, sports, music, dance, camp, church and service to the community so they can become good citizens and become responsible and productive adults? Unwittingly, parents and kids are influenced by messages from teachers, coaches, peers, churches, Nike, Adidas, travel ball, orchestra, art and science camps, millions of people employed and volunteering to supply clothing, equipment and services, and our own desire for our children to have the benefits that accrue to those who participate.
Books and journal articles have been written on sleep-deprived, over-busy children, and over-scheduled children. Mix in electronic devices and its no wonder Alabama parents reported ADHD diagnosed in children in 2011 at 14%. Isn’t 14% a serious health problem? Before we become parents, we need to reflect on our values to better prepare us to contend with the large, well-meaning enterprise that sucks parents and kids into the activities they “need” so they can “fit” into the “right” groups and be ready for whatever opportunities may come available to them. We need to guard against the child development industrial complex.
Do you over-scheduled children? How much do you value your influence as a parent? Do you talk with your children? Do you know how to have a conversation without a lecture? Who are the coaches, the tutors, the youth volunteers and leaders with whom you entrust your child? Do you want to know these are people who share your values and with whom your child could have a serious conversation? Are you investing your weekend time traveling to dance or sport competitions because you believe the experience will lead to a college scholarship for your child? What is the impact of those activities on school performance, sleep deprivation, building friendships, faith development? Any of these seemingly infinite number of activities can be good or bad, but parents would do well to weigh the costs and benefits. Too much church commitment can be a bad thing as much as too much sport or too much music or too much video gaming.
Parents should guard against being unwittingly influenced by the child development industrial complex leading to over-scheduled children. Sitting in front of a television set as a family isn’t necessarily family time. Remember, the human brain responds to activity by building neural pathways. Not choosing is choosing to pay attention to something. What kind of attention do you choose to strengthen in you and your child?
David Barnhart, EdD
Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor