Whose Schedule is it Anyway?

By Nicki Leaper 2021-05-06 11:58:17

Expectations, opportunities, and the eternal quest for balance.

The Goldilocks principle

When it comes to organising activities, it can feel like we are in a constant state of balancing, just like Goldilocks, finding the perfect blend of activities that hits ‘just right’ spot.

We want to do what is “best” for our children. But who gets to decide what the “best” is? I have my personal childhood experience. Then there is my partner’s lived experience to consider, which is different. There are the hopes and dreams for our children’s future. And then there’s peer pressure from other parents. What they think about how I parent (and whether I am doing a good enough job in their eyes). All this weighing on our minds before we even ask the kids what they would like to do!

Let’s start by looking at the impact of both over and under-scheduling.


Over-scheduling: brilliant, busy, or burnt out?

Kids exposed to different activities, expand their minds, improve physical fitness, and build social skills. But if the level of activity is not right for the child, the effect can end up being detrimental.

Highly scheduled children can develop an expectation of being entertained all the time. This can lead to having little ability to self-regulate their own energy and emotions, crying “I’m bored” after two minutes on their own and not knowing what to do. According to Dr. Laura Markham, clinical psychologist and author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting”, boredom is a good thing. As long as the primary needs of a child are met, boredom can be the stimulus for self-directed entertainment and learning, lemonade stands constructed, comic books illustrated, dance routines invented.

Children with multiple extra-curricular activities also often miss out on time to just be and play. Constantly running around, with a never ending to-do list (practice, homework, preparation) often takes away ‘child time’ by placing adult-like productivity expectations on children.

The impact of over scheduling can be subtle as well. Take the need for snacking in between school and activities. The quick fix is to grab a pre-packaged snack to eat en route.

But this ‘quick-fix’ can lead to bad eating habits, which can have a significant impact on the child’s overall health and wellbeing.


Multiple activities x multiple children = minimal family time.

How often do you get to sit together as a family and talk about your day? On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, my two eldest kids have football practice, at different times, in different locations. Neither are far from home (thank goodness!) but dinner becomes a buffet service that lasts a couple of hours. That’s without taking my husband’s timing into account. Conversation tends to be brisk and functional focusing on a checklist of “to-do’s” with little time for any real listening or engagement.

It’s fine. My kids love their football practice. It’s ‘only’ two nights a week, yet I am aware of its impact. Family time is important for all of us, not just the children; for connection, for feelings of safety and security and belonging. Unhurried space and time to talk about nothing in particular is the magic thread that binds us together. Making sure we get enough of it is hard when running multiple busy schedules.


Friendship matters

Being constantly busy with activities may also limit the depth of friendships that comes through unstructured time spent together. Particularly within the international communities here, people come and go quickly.

One recent study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships suggested that it takes approximately 200 hours of quality time to think of a person as a close friend, and it’s activities such as spending time together in one another’s homes that leads to deeper relationships being formed.

“The trouble with over- structuring is that it discourages exploration.” Jay Giedd, Director, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University of California.

If kids run straight into a full schedule of after school activities each day, when do they get the chance to share their secrets and stories with their friends? Create make-believe worlds and learn about each other’s viewpoints and visions?


The pressure of perfectionism

In our desire to provide all the opportunities possible for our children, we can unwittingly lead them to believe that they need to excel at everything. “Good enough” can very easily be seen as not good enough.

This can both limit the ability for a child to develop in one specialism (a true passion) and place a huge amount of pressure on the child to prove they are exceptional.

Add in the fact that taking part in multiple extracurricular activities can lead to limited rest, recovery and sleep time, all of which are needed for healthy development. Oversensitivity, inability to concentrate, anxiety, stress and exhaustion are all

common signals of overscheduling. And if not caught in time, can lead to a burnout.


Under-scheduling: laid- back, lazy, or disconnected?

Lack of extracurricular activities can also lead to feelings of isolation, the absence of human-to-human interaction outside of the school environment limiting the development of confident social and communication skills in children.

A shortage of physical activity outside of school hours can also have a significant, long term health related impact. Eating can often become an accompanying pastime to boredom (hello sofa, hello chocolate!) and emotional imbalances (irritation, anger, inability to sleep) are not uncommon. If the child has sat down at school for most of the day, using their brain but not their body, they won’t have had the chance to ‘burn off’ their pent-up energy. And so it may well get ‘released’ at inappropriate times in an inappropriate manner.


Spark joy?

The laid-back approach can also mean that the child misses out on the opportunity to engage in alternative activities that could spark real enjoyment, engagement, and the unearthing of hidden talents.

Many of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs came to their ‘success’ by way of an extracurricular fascination. Bill Gates was an amateur programmer from an early age, who was passionate enough about computers that in the eighth grade, he managed to get excused from math class to design things like early video games. Look where that got him!

Under-scheduling can prevent kids from making the most of the rich diversity of activity and friendship opportunities.

There is also the potential that under-scheduling can lead the child to have a higher dependence on their parents to ‘entertain’ them outside of school hours - which has an effect on the child’s independence and self reliance.


So how can we get it ‘just-right’?

As a leadership coach, I often have people telling me they are looking to achieve balance in their lives. I have come to understand that what they really want is to feel like they are choosing their life, not just reacting to what is thrown at them. Balance means guiding people towards mak- ing choices that truly resonate with them, choosing the experiences they most want to have, that will move them in the direction of the vision and goals they have set for themselves.

The fact is, there is no ‘right’ answer. It will depend on your family dynamic and the individual nature of each of your children. So, where to start?

What do you see as the purpose of extracurricular activities?

This may seem like a rather simplistic question, but answering it yourself, and then asking the same question of your partner and your kids, might throw up some interesting inconsistencies that are worth discussing.

Is the choice of extracurricular activities really about the child and their best interests? Or is there a part of it that is driven by past issues and desires of your own? As a mum of two, Yanny wisely commented “Life cannot be repeated.”

What are the tangible benefits that a good extracurricular programme can offer? It allows children to get out of their comfort zone and try new things. Things that they might not be good at. Things that will actively help them develop the growth mindset we all aspire to - where the child sees a challenge as an opportunity for growth, rather than as a sign that they lack talent.

As they get older, extracurricular activities present the chance to develop leadership and communication skills, with many schools welcoming student-led extracurricular initiatives.

It’s also worth noting, studies have shown that extracurricular activities can actively enhance a child’s mental wellbeing, by offering an escape from the pressures of day to day school life. A space where a less academic child can be seen to ‘shine’ in a different light by others around them; teachers and students alike.

And let’s not forget pure and simple fun! Sometimes, surely, a child should just be able to do something for the pure love of it. No ‘outcome’ expected.


Their schedule? Your schedule?

If you’re tired organising and scheduling everything, think about how they might feel actually doing it all.

Acknowledge each child is different, with a unique combination of needs and capabilities. Just because one child loves multiple sports, doesn’t mean that the others will too. The same goes for maths club and minecraft.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” William Butler Yeats, Poet

Look at the overall weekly schedule and ensure your children aren’t feeling burdened by their activities. Do they come home energised or drained from their activities? Are they raring to go or are you dragging them there each week? Where possible, let them choose extracurricular activities that they enjoy. It makes it easier for everyone.

Plus, it’s up to you to try and ensure that they (& you!) get an adequate amount of downtime. There’s a great acronym I came across recently to do with the idea of family scheduling:

Everyone needs their PDF:

• Playtime
• Downtime
• FamilyTime

How you behave as a parent models what is ‘expected’ from your kids. If you are always running around, never sitting down to relax, then that’s what they see as ‘normal’.


Just tired? Or is there more to it?

A certain amount of structure and pressure can be a good thing for a child to learn to work with and manage, but keep your eyes out for telltale signs that it might be getting too much.

Burnout is a state of mental, physical, or emotional exhaustion that can happen in children when there is an imbalance between the requirements being asked for and the personal resources available to fulfil them.

Yes, sometimes this can be created by parents who are aiming to create child prodigies, managed with an iron fist of discipline. (Hello story of Tiger Moms.) More often than not though, children who suffer from burnout are those who ask and expect way too much of themselves.


Signs of burnout

There is no definitive list of the symptoms of burnout, but the following are some things to look out for:

• Constant fatigue
• Significant changes in weight (loss or gain)

• Procrastination, avoidance and apathy towards previously enjoyed activities or school

• Emotional outbursts
• Anxiety and fear
• Plummeting self-esteem

• Social isolation

Your children might not notice these shifts, particularly as they can build slowly and incrementally, so it will probably be down to you to recognise and get curious about what might be at the root of the changes.


Good to know...

If you have significant concerns about a change in your child’s behaviour, then it’s time to turn to a trained professional. Here are the telephone numbers to trained counsellors in Shanghai.

Community Center Shanghai www.communitycentershanghai. com; Tel: 136 3631 7474

Shanghai Mental Health Center www.smhc.org.cn; Tel: (021) 6438 7250

LifeLine Shanghai Tel: 400 821 1215 (10 a.m. to 10 p.m., free and anonymous, 7 days a week)

United Family Hospital Tel: 400 639 3900

ParkwayHealth Tel: 400 819 6622

Jiahui Health Tel: 400 868 3000


Back to the basics

With a vision of what you and your children want from their extracurric- ular activities, you can look to cover some key support factors and then factor in a ‘daily dose of happiness’ to keep everyone on track on this never ending journey towards balance:

• Sleep: the most important factor in ensuring that children can meet their full potential in every aspect of their lives. While there are no hard and fast rules, the general guide is that children aged 3 to 12 years old need 10 to 12 hours per night and teenagers around 8 to 9 hours. Working backwards from the daily wake up time, when does your child need to be going to bed? How close are they to that target? What can you do to help minimise any sleep gap?

• Nutrition: Areyourchildreneating a balanced diet? A good breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Does their diet cover all the main food groups and not rely too heavily on pre-packaged snacks? Do they get to share mealtimes with the wider family, for communication and connection?

• Outdoortime: Dotheyhavetime to run around, expend energy and build motor functions? Family walks are a great way to spend time together and exercise without anyone even noticing it!


The Happy Hormones

When your kids are feeling good, their brains are releasing one of the happy hormones, which help with their development:

Dopamine: Enables motivation, learning, and pleasure. It’s the “I got it” feeling when you accomplish something.

• Oxytocin: The love drug! Gives feelings of trust, motivates the building and sustaining of relationships. Gives a lasting feeling of calm and safety.

• Serotonin: Calm confidence by accepting yourself within your social group. It’s what motivates you to excel and grow.

• Endorphin: Abriefeuphoriathat masks physical pain. Occurs when you exceed your physical limits and is often known as “runner’s high”. Helps to alleviate anxiety and depression.

How can you help your children to naturally increase their daily happiness chemicals? Below are a few options. Suggest a couple for your children to try and remember that helping your kids to build a continuous practise is what will make the biggest difference:

• Meditate: increases dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphin levels.

• Exercise: increases and balances dopamine and serotonin, increases oxytocin and endorphin levels.

Create something (writing, music, arts, crafts): increased dopamine and endorphin levels.

Connect with friends and family: increases oxytocin.

Stroke your pets: increases oxytocin and reduces stress hormones.

Listen to music: increases oxytocin and has a calming effect on the brain.

• Walk outside in sunshine: increases serotonin and vitamin D.

We can’t guarantee our children’s success, but we can work alongside them to be conscious of the impact, both positive and negative, that extracurricular activities are having on them and the wider family unit. And we can adjust our choices from there. Knowledge leads to power.


Mum Yanny shared that extracurricular activities are completely different now than in her day. Her parents were not involved in school or non-school activities.

When she first moved back to China this all seemed quite challenging, as she had no idea what a parent was meant to do in this environment. Yanny followed the mums and had her daughter do quite a few popular activities like Chinese chess, Kumon tutoring, tennis and Taekwondo, that she had no interest in. Yanny was worried that her daughter was behind others. That’s the key part of peer pressure. If Yanny didn’t offer a wide range of activities to her kid, there would be negative comments like “this mum is irresponsible or not ambitious enough”. But to be honest, Yanny found the pressure can also be motivational. It helped her to be more open minded. She has now worked out her own way to make the right choices for her kids. Yanny evaluates them more sensibly and communicates with her daughter more. It was a waste of time and money when over-scheduled.

Primarily it’s Yanny who does all the scheduling. She use a spreadsheet to record everything to avoid overlapping or confusion on dates and synchronises with her calendar as a reminder. It’s like a job as it needs proper liaising, planning, and coordination!

Yanny’s main goal is to offer her kids opportunities to build skills outside of the classroom and boost their confidence with things they enjoy or excel at. It also can be a good opportunity to open their minds to new interests. As the mum, Yanny takes the lead in making the decisions but the kids must agree. She doesn’t want to see struggling faces!

Overall, Yanny believes extracurricular activities definitely provide a great chance for kids to broaden perspectives and experiences.


Mum Melissa said it’s easy to overschedule as there are so many options! Her kids are older now and so mostly they manage their own schedules and she says they are a mix of over and under-scheduled at any one time, but it works and she talks about it with them.

When they were younger she definitely wanted them to experience as much as possible: to find out what they enjoyed (and what they didn’t.) Some negative, overly competitive experiences led her older boy away from sports for a long while, but he’s found his way back now, thanks to a great bunch of friends.

Melissa counts her family lucky as school here offered so many ‘taster’ options, so her kids could try multiple instruements, but they have to want it. She is not going to push her kids to keep practising if they’re not interested.

Her oldest has overscheduled herself. She loves sports (social and competitive) and is driven by service, much like Melissa. She doesn’t like to say ‘no’ (a life lesson she’s getting to work on here, thanks to scheduling clashes) and she’s realised that if she wants certain things to happen, she has to take the lead. Her daughter does get stressed, but she works her way through it and gets back up.


My Wise Words?

There’s a value in keeping kids engaged in something other than screen time, that’s for sure! And being able to find a real passion outside of school work can help keep a balance on the pressure they can feel to be exceptional academically.