- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

If it is Tuesday, it must be ballet or soccer, band practice, tae kwon do, swimming or gymnastics.

Today's schoolchildren have a wealth of choices. The parks and recreation catalog resembles a medium-sized city phone directory. The local youth soccer league has 500 children starting as young as age 5 on its rosters.

The neighbors are all signed up because, of course, if you don't get in now, then you have less of a chance of making the travel team in 2007.

What are parents to do? Well, for starters, they can say no. The start of the school year is the time for parents to sit down with their children and discuss what after-school activities are the most important, what can the whole family make time for, and what cleats, toe shoes or skates can finally be retired.

"There is a lot of pressure out there to overschedule or else your kid will be a dolt and you will be a bad parent," says Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, a New York psychiatrist and co-author of "The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap." "Parents respond to that kind of pressure. Parents only have the obligation to give kids a balanced life."

Tufts University child development specialist David Elkind, author of the child-rearing classic, "The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon," has recommended for years that after about age 7 children can include something social (such as Scouting or religious school), something creative (such as playing a musical instrument) and something physical (such as a sport or dance). Children under age 7 do not need structured extracurriculars as long as they are in a good preschool or school program, he says.

Somewhere along the line, though, visions of athletic scholarships and stardom supplanted the basic skills class.

"A few ballet lessons [are] good if your child is passionate about it," Dr. Rosenfeld says. "But the problems occur when the kid becomes professionalized, when there is no time for anything else and you think your 5-year-old is going to be the next Cynthia Gregory."

Picking and choosing

Aaron Kalman is 10, and basketball is his sport-of-choice. It used to be that basketball, martial arts and swimming were all on his weekly schedule. Then Aaron, who lives in Herndon, became skilled enough to make the select basketball team. Combine those twice-weekly practices with his thrice-weekly religious school commitments, and it was time for decisions, says Aaron's mother, Iris Kalman. Tae kwon do was dropped in favor of basketball and swimming.

"We couldn't juggle it," Mrs. Kalman says. "It was too much. Now Spencer, my 5-year-old, plays basketball and swims. I can only be in one place at one time, and I don't want to spend it in the car. I want to be involved and watch them practice and play. The whole idea is for me to enjoy them."

Mrs. Kalman and her husband, Mitchell, do not have any dreams of their sons playing professional basketball. They do not really care what sport the boys play, just as long as they are doing something physical.

"I don't care what activity it is," Mrs. Kalman says. "Sports will keep them out of trouble and keep them aware of taking care of their health."

Allison Brake, a Reston mother of twin 8-year-old girls, essentially subscribes to Mr. Elkind's plan of scheduling children's activities. The twins, Alex and Blair, take gymnastics, ballet lessons and participate in Girl Scouts during the school year. At shorter intervals during the previous school year, the girls also took art and swimming lessons and played on a softball team.

Now the twins are exploring a new passion: horseback riding. Mrs. Brake says she is inclined to leave riding lessons as a summer treat, then to re-evaluate its place in the schedule later.

"We are still in the phase of trying things out," says Mrs. Brake, who reports that the girls' extracurricular activities cost several thousand dollars annually. "If one or both are passionate about one activity, I will follow their lead. Someday, all the classes might go by the wayside, but right now they have good grades."

The Brake sisters are participating for fun, not fame, their mother says.

"I want them to stay active and to be physically fit," Mrs. Brake says. "Gymnastics and ballet are things that make you aware of your body. I told their ballet instructor I could care less if they ever set foot on a stage. In fact, she wanted us to commit to two days of ballet a week. I said one is fine, and I doubt we'll ever be in 'The Nutcracker.'"

Room on whose schedule?

Jane Guffy has five children and just 24 hours in a day. That is why Mrs. Guffy, of Plymouth, Minn., became one of the founders of Putting Family Life First, a grass-roots organization that seeks, among other things, ways to let parents control the after-school activities, rather than letting the activities control them.

"We are urging families to find balance," says Mrs. Guffy, whose children range in age from 4 to 12. "I think some parents don't know they have permission to have some say. A lot of them think they have to do what the coaches say."

Mrs. Guffy urges parents to find out in advance just what being on a particular team will involve. That way there are no surprises and frantic car-pool arrangements and grumbling when they are asked to be a bench coach or have their child at practice at 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning.

"When you disclose all of that up front, it works so much better," she says.

Mrs. Guffy needs to be organized. Her own children's commitments include baseball teams, dance team, soccer teams and ski club. Her family has had to compromise, such as committing to the travel team and competitive dance during the school year but not in the summer. Piano lessons and Scouting have been phased out. She told one daughter she could not be in a dance program where the word "mandatory" was used all over the sign-up sheet.

"Hockey was also nixed a long time ago," Mrs. Guffy says. "It is an exorbitant cost and time commitment, so I wasn't even going to open up that can of worms."

Mrs. Guffy advises parents to think about what skills the child will gain from being in a particular activity. She likes that her children are in the ski club, because skiing is a "lifelong social sport," she says. The children have tried golf and tennis, sports that Mrs. Guffy has encouraged because the siblings can do them together, rather than with a team.

She also says that what might work for one family might not work for yours. With five active children, Mrs. Guffy decided a long time ago that she and her husband will be at the games but not necessarily the practices. If activities are too demanding such as the dance team with the mandatory practices they might not get on the schedule at all.

"You have to draw the line," she says. "You need to talk about it and decide if this is how your family wants to spend its time. What has happened is that many parents lose their perspective. I was aware of a conversation on the sidelines of one of my kids' games recently. I realized that parents don't talk about their lives, anymore. They talk about their kids' sports and how they are so busy they can't go on vacation. We need to put into perspective why our kids are in sports in the first place. So many of us have invested in our children's activities instead of in our children themselves."

Bored? Burned out?

Sometimes, it is not the parent saying "no" to activities it is the child. The downside of starting activities, particularly competitive activities, early is that the young dancer or athlete can get burned out just when they should be starting out, says Brad E. Sachs, a Columbia, Md., family psychologist and author of "The Good Enough Child: How to Have an Imperfect Family and Be Perfectly Satisfied."

"It is fair to insist upon school and religious school," he says, "but children should be free to come and go with activities and be free to try different ones. However, if you have an eighth-grader who has been playing baseball and has committed to the team, it is fair to encourage him to stick it out."

Dr. Jordan D. Metzl, co-founder of the Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, says parents should respond to quitting differently for each age group.

Children ages 5 to 11 who do not want to continue might be confused by the rules of a game or be scared of getting hurt.

"You can explain the rules or practice with him, so he feels more comfortable," Dr. Metzl says, "but if your child is adamant about stopping and has tried for a few weeks, let him stop. At this age, obligation to a team is minimal, and one child dropping out is unlikely to make a difference in the experiences of the other children."

For older children, the reasons for quitting may be more complex, he says. Find out why he wants to stop. Some serious and valid reasons: Does he feel he cannot improve further? Cannot live up to the expectations of the adults around him? Overwhelmed by the demands on his time?

"However, those reasons must be balanced against the long-term benefits if she continues to play," Dr. Metzl says. "There is also the issue of obligation to others if she plays on a team. If you allow a child to quit during the season, you might be encouraging her to give up quickly in the face of other challenges. The perceived message might be that your child's needs or wants are paramount and the needs of others don't count."

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