It's the most wonderful time of the year.
Not because of the holiday season and all the traditions and good cheer that go along with it. For busy parents, this is one of the few times on the calendar that is blissfully devoid of the usual schedules filling their lives.
The last couple weeks of December are a time with few practices to attend, little homework to do and a sparse slate of games to watch. The carpool can wait, so can the music lessons, the tutor and the basketball tournament.
Has it always been this way? Or in our increasingly competitive world - one where the entire roster of team moms engages in a collective sigh of relief when a thunderstorm wipes out that day's soccer practice - is this a sign we are doing too much?
"People become victims of their own enthusiasm," says Edward Hallowell, a Boston psychiatrist and author of the book "Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap!" "Childhood should be about time to explore and dream, not a forced march towards a pressure-packed adulthood. You should help your child develop skills, but don't overdo it. We do have some control over it. It is up to [parents] to exercise control and better judgment, even if everyone is doing it."
Therein lies part of the problem. Schedules are easy to control when children are young and testing the waters of their interests and abilities. But when children get older, the stakes get higher. Want to play soccer on the select under-12 team? The coach says you must commit to practice four times a week and can't miss any games. Congratulations, you made the all-county orchestra - there will be practice every day. Applying to college? Better beef up the extracurriculars.
Debbie Katz, mother of three children in Herndon, Va., recently discovered the latter. She thought she had reached a new era where her sons, ages 15 and 13, had relaxed a bit on the after-school schedule while her 10-year-old daughter was enjoying a busy tally of dance lessons, Brownies and religious school. Then Mrs. Katz had a pre-college planning session with the school counselor.
"She was talking about the importance of maintaining the extracurriculars and doing charity and civic work, because schools really look at that," she says. "That had sort of calmed down a bit, which is what happens around this age, and now we need to ramp it up, so Zach is looking at extracurriculars. Zach is in band, but if he wants to stop that, he will need to replace it with something."
And if that something is not on school grounds, it is back to the minivan and juggling the schedules.
"It is definitely a balancing act," Mrs. Katz says. "We all walk a tightrope. We want our kids to do enough, but not too much. And we have to work it out how to get them there."
Dr. Hallowell says jampacked kids' schedules are just part of a world that has been ramping up over the past 15 years or so.
"Someone turned up the heat on us in the mid-1990s," he writes in his book. "We're not boiled yet, but we are definitely feeling the burn."
Partly to blame is technology, which has let people do several things at once, and an inability to say "no."
"Lingering is a lost art," Dr. Hallowell says. "Everyone is busy, not because they want to be or planned to be, but because they can't find a way not to be and still keep up. Being extraordinarily busy appears to be the inevitable uncontrollable consequence of living in today's world."
In the end, being "crazy busy" can have some real consequences. Dr. Hallowell says everyone's attention span is shrinking because our attention has more possible targets than ever before.
Mimi Doe, a spiritual parenting consultant and author of the book "Busy, but Balanced," says people, particularly parents, need to give themselves permission to unplug - or at least temporarily step back from the race.
"Many parents are not really conscious they are getting caught up in it," she says. "They plunge ahead without taking control of the chaos."
Leslie Sogandares is one parent who recently called a timeout. Mrs. Sogandares' children, ages 10 and 13, are year-round competitive swimmers. They recently learned there would be swim practice during most of Christmas break - and a big swim meet on Jan. 2.
"I was surprised," says Mrs. Sogandares, who lives in Reston, Va. "It was really surprising they were trying hard to get as many kids as possible to compete. If I had a kid who was heading for the Olympics, I would be there. But I don't. So we are going on vacation and won't be back for the meet."
Ms. Doe points out that in today's overscheduled society, it is quite common that winter break is not a break at all.
"December is the busiest time of the year for tutors," she says. "For kids in high school, this is a time to prepare for the SATs and apply to summer programs. For younger kids, the holidays should still be a respite and take on a different tone. Many parents have trouble doing that. They feel guilty for waving the white flag and saying 'we're hunkering in.' "
In fact, Ms. Doe says some people feel a little lost without so much to do.
"It has become a badge of honor to talk about how busy we are and how busy the kids are," says Ms. Doe, who has four children. "I was at Nordstrom the other day buying a pair of slippers as a gift for my mother. Another lady there says to me 'Are those for your high school student? Where does she go? Mine are so busy!' I just nodded. My daughter is an equestrian, but I just didn't feel the need to talk about her schedule or how many Christmas parties we're invited to."