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The Scheduled Child

Each fall when our kids were young, my husband and I would make an elaborate grid with each kid’s name (there are four of them) going down the left side and the days of the work week going across the top. Then we would fill in what each child would be doing each day after school: soccer practice, Girl or Boy Scouts, dance lessons, after-school homework club, etc. With both of us working, we needed to know that our children would be safe and occupied until one of us got home.

Then we discovered we should feel guilty. All this structured play and activity, according to some experts, was depriving our kids of developing social skills, stunting their creativity, stressing their psyches, and guaranteeing that they would never learn to organize their own time. Ideally, said these same experts, children should have lots of unstructured playtime to use their imaginations and to figure out for themselves how to get along with others. Adults shouldn’t organize and manage every minute. Kids, said the experts, need time to just be kids.

Fine. I agree. But it’s not so simple. The demands of the work world are simply not compatible with relaxed, unscheduled afternoons at home for parents and children to hang out together. Most families with young children have to figure out how to keep their kids safe, occupied, and more happy than not in the late afternoons and during school breaks while parents work.

Some parents hold their breath and let kids stay home alone (please see Children Who Are Home Alone). But for those unable or unwilling to do that due to children’s ages or safety concerns, and for those without extended family or childcare to fill in the blanks, patchworking a variety of activities is the only other option. How do we make sure our kids are occupied and avoid feeling, or being, guilty for doing so? What’s a working parent to do?

Scheduling vs. “Pushing”

Much of the research that warns against “overscheduling” actually is concerned with the negative effects of too much parental pressure for achievement. It’s not about the scheduling. It’s about the dangers of pushing kids to be excellent in everything at all times.

Parents who see every activity as a contest for superiority, who insist that their kids be the best, and who constantly criticize any effort that doesn’t result in a prize, can make their kids and themselves into nervous wrecks. Children in these families tend to give up anything they can’t excel in and constantly compare themselves to everyone else. Their self-esteem becomes too tied to accomplishments. Parents of these children often measure their own status by their children’s successes. It’s a setup for constant tension between parent and child. Ironically, by focussing so much on winning, these families often lose the simple pleasures of being with other people and doing things for the joy of it.

Participation in an activity doesn’t have to be equated with pressure to be the best. One of our daughters, for example, was lucky to find a dance studio that emphasized the value of self-expression through dance rather than dance competitions. She spent many relaxed afternoons hanging out with her friends, watching each others’ lessons, and doing a little homework while she waited for her turn. Yes, there was a troupe for those who wanted to do the competition thing but not everyone felt pushed to be part of that elite group. The owner of the studio understood that not every kid who takes lessons is headed for stardom and that there is a place for just dancing for its own sake.

Another mom I know was delighted when one of her sons joined the track team so he could learn to pole vault. His coach understood that he was trying it out, not trying to be champion. He gave him time to work on the skill without insisting he compete until and unless he felt ready. The result? For three months, her son practiced and practiced after school until he could get over that bar with ease. His coach was more interested in kids feeling good about their own accomplishments than in winning. Not surprisingly, his team often wins.

A Matter of Balance

This is not to say that there isn’t a place for developing excellence. Doing well in life requires the willingness to work at something; to manage setbacks, and to try again and again. If a child needs help with schoolwork, it’s reasonable to schedule in some after-school help or tutoring.

For the child who really, really does want to be an excellent athlete or dancer or violinist or biochemist, it makes sense to find a coach or teacher who can be helpful. When these experiences are balanced with other, less achievement-oriented activities, kids don’t burn out and parents don’t have to feel guilty.

Play to a Child’s Strengths

Think about it. Would you rather spend your time doing something you know how to do well and enjoy, or be in a situation where you feel like you’re less skilled than others and may be letting the team down? Children who feel competent in an activity are more likely to stick with it and not complain about having to go.

Talk to your child about what he or she is good at and what choices are available. If your kid is great at swimming and can’t make a soccer goal to save his life (and therefore hates it), forget about soccer and sign up for the swim team or recreational swimming.

Give Kids Some Say

Many kids will tell you that they would prefer to stay home alone. If that isn’t an option due to their age or safety concerns, be clear about it. But then sit down together and figure out what choices the kids can have. Kids who feel that they have some say in what they do in the afternoons are also more likely to be cooperative. Work together within the constraints of your budget, transportation needs, and values to map out the week.

Allow for Change

As your child gets older, she or he may lose interest in something that was once an obsession. An important part of childhood is trying different things and sorting out what one does and doesn’t like. Forcing a kid to stay with something just because it makes your life easier will ultimately create stress for both parent and child. On the other hand, you can’t be expected to accommodate a child who wants to make a change every other day. Equally important, children need to learn to take decision-making seriously and to follow through with commitments. A three- to six-month minimuml commitment is only fair to a team, teacher, or activity.

Guilt-free Parenting

Guilt free parenting? Right. When someone figures out how to do that, please let me know. In the meantime, I do know this: A scheduled child doesn’t have to be a hurried child or a pressured child or a child deprived of childhood. If we plan afternoons with care, a scheduled child can instead be a safe and secure child, an active child, and a mostly happy child. That’s not something to feel guilty about.

The Scheduled Child

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). The Scheduled Child. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 22, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.