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Debate Club: Are Multiple Extracurricular Activities Good or Bad For Kids?


Too Many Extracurricular Activities Are Bad For Our Kids

By Sandi Schwartz

When was the last time your children came home from school and just played freely in the backyard? I’m guessing that sounds like a foreign concept. You’re probably asking, “What about taking them to dance class, art school, swim lessons, soccer practice, religious school, and that tutoring session just last week alone?” 

The over-scheduled childhood culture

Millions of children in the United States feel overwhelmed and pressured because of their over-scheduled lives. In a Psychology Today article, Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of “The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap,” explains how enrolling children in too many activities is a huge problem. Parents feel like they aren’t doing a good job if they don’t sign their children up for a variety of activities exposing them to sports, culture, religion, and everything else under the sun starting at a young age. But then the children are under so much pressure to compete with their peers and achieve “success.”

I learned my lesson the hard way – but luckily early enough before a major problem developed. When my son was in first grade, I signed him up for activities every day after school. I specifically remember that he had an activity on Monday and how much stress that caused him because he received his packet of homework for the entire week that day. There were many tears during that time because he wasn’t able to start his homework until close to dinner; he worried that he wouldn’t have enough time to complete his work. We decided then that it was a good idea to keep Monday clear to ease into the school week and to minimize his activities overall.

What do we sacrifice when we overschedule our children?

Yes, we want our kids to socialize and learn new skills. However, when we over-book them, they suffer. Here are just three aspects of our children’s lives that get pushed aside when we overschedule their days.

Health

Stress and anxiety play a big role in our children’s lives today. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), it’s estimated that 1 in 8 children suffers from an anxiety disorder. More worrisome, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 25 percent of teens ages 13-18 will experience some form of anxiety. 

Much of this stress is because children are not getting enough down time. They’re being carted around from one activity to another, unable to calm their mind and simply play. Peter Gray, author of the book “Free to Learn,” ties this lack of free play to the increase in children suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.

Creativity

Being creative involves having the time to explore and grow. When we’re creative, we become so absorbed in our work that we reach a meditative state of flow. How will our children have the chance to be creative if they are constantly rushing between structured activities?

Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D., a developmental and clinical psychologist, believes that “…children in America are so overscheduled that they have almost no ‘nothing time.’ They have no time to call on their own resources and be creative. Creativity is making something out of nothing, and it takes time for that to happen. In our efforts to produce Renaissance children who are competitive in all areas, we squelch creativity.”

Self-awareness

Children need time in their day to simply be themselves. This allows them to get in touch with their emotions and to ultimately figure out who they are and what they want to become. They need calm, quiet moments for mindfulness and introspection. They also need time to explore topics in depth without time constraints, curriculum, and scores. When children are involved in too many different activities, they sacrifice breadth for depth and miss out on opportunities for authentic self-discovery.

How to navigate our children’s schedules

In the end, it’s all about balance. As parents, we need to learn what our children can handle and what they want – not what we think is best for their college applications. This does not mean you need to take your children out of all their activities. Try limiting the amount of time spent in extracurricular activities and choosing them wisely. For example, we decided that baseball was not going to work for my son because it required a commitment of three days per week. We also just pulled my daughter out of a wonderful dance studio to attend dance at her school because it alleviates unnecessary travel time.

The bottom line: keep tabs on what makes your children happy and be sure they’re getting plenty of unscheduled down time.

Multiple Extracurricular Activities are Good for Our Kids

By Cheryl Maguire

“I’m bored,” my 11-year-old daughter grumbled as she collapsed on to the couch. It was a rare unscheduled moment in her life. I cringed as I recalled what can occur when she has a spontaneous second. At the age of three, I assumed she was quietly playing with her toys only to discover the entire wall was covered with a new crayon mural. We are both happier now that she’s enrolled in art classes.

She prefers being busy which is why she partook in six different extracurricular activities this past spring. Her interests ranged from sign language class to swim team. Besides avoiding boredom (and messes) there are many benefits to having scheduled activities for your child. Research by the National Center for Education Statistics states that students who participated in after-school activities had better attendance, higher levels of achievement, and aspirations to higher levels of education.

Better academic performance

Even though my daughter was in six different clubs or sports, she received all A’s in her academic classes. By participating in extracurricular activities, a child is able to learn new skills which can then be applied to the school setting. For example my daughter was in the garden club and she used the information she learned about plants in her science class. Sports such as basketball, baseball, and football use statistics, addition and subtraction, probability, and geometry which can be applied to math class.

A number of research studies found students who participate in extracurricular activities perform better in school. Reeves studied data at Woodstock High School in Woodstock, Illinois and found students who were in three or four extracurricular activities during the year had dramatically better grades than those who participated in no extracurricular activities. Another study, this one by the College Board, found that high school extracurricular participation is correlated with higher SAT scores; SAT math by 45 points and SAT verbal scores by 53 points.

Adaptability

If a child is participating in more than one activity, they will also experience more than one coach or teacher who will have different rules and expectations. They’ll have the opportunity to meet kids with a range of personalities and interests. These interactions will teach a child how to be adaptable to multiple people and situations.

Salvortore Maddi and Deborah Khoshaba’s training guide, “Resilience at Work,” discusses the importance of being adaptable. The authors found that when adaptable people lost their jobs, they thrived due to their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Being adaptable is a skill that will benefit your in school and well beyond graduation. 

Better social skills

Children will gain social skills both from the person in charge of the activity or sport and by interacting with their peers. They also have the opportunity to learn about teamwork by playing a sport or participating in a group effort like the class musical. 

In my daughter’s book club includes social time after their discussion of the assigned book. Much like a lot of grown-ups I know, even when she hasn’t read the book, she still wants to go to the club because she loves the social interaction with her peers.

Less screen time

According to Common Sense Media, the average teen spend over nine hours a day playing video games or watching TV. If children are participating in after-school activities they will have way less time to do either of those things.

Decreased risk of obesity

Obesity affects about 12.7 million children and adolescents – a figure that has remained steady for the past decade.

Participating in an active after-school activity, like a sports team, is one obvious way to help lower your child’s risk of obesity.

Use your judgement

Sometimes, even for my daughter, you can have too many activities. I’m always cognizant of her energy level. If she needs to skip an activity once in a while, I let her. Or when I noticed she wasn’t enthusiastic about going to gymnastics anymore, we both decided it would be best not to sign up for the next session. Most importantly, you want to make sure your child is happy and definitely not bored.

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

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[Editor's note: This story is a letter from a woman to her husband. While this is one example of one type of relationship, we understand, appreciate and celebrate that relationships come in all forms and configurations.]

To my husband,

We met when I was 22. We started building a life together. We became each other's best friend, cheerleader, guidance counselor, and shelter from the storm. We laughed together, cried together, and stood up in front of all the people who matter to us and vowed to stay together until one of us dies.

We said the words without irony or hesitation, knowing that while we weren't perfect, the problems we could face in life would never be enough to break us.

And babe, I had no clue what our future held. But I knew I wanted to experience it only with you.

Then we got pregnant! And when our son was born, I marveled at the fact that we made a person. You and me. It honestly still blows my mind even five years later.

I'd heard women say things like, I fell in love with my husband all over again once I saw him as a daddy. I love watching you be a daddy, too—but just like becoming a mother has been transformative for me, becoming a father has been transformative for you, too. And it has taken us some time to get to know the new versions of ourselves.

We worked together—mostly on the same team—and have shared so many beautiful lessons and experiences together. Everything is new when you're a first-time parent! And this new dynamic of three definitely threw us for a loop—I wasn't used to sharing your attention with someone else, and I wasn't used to sharing my attention with someone other than you.

It took a few years to hit our stride. I think maybe we never had big things to disagree on before we became parents. It threw me off to be anything but harmonious with you. But just like we said we would on that gorgeous September wedding day, we found our way back. We stayed on each other's team.

And then I got pregnant again.

We were planning a huge life change already— moving across the country to start anew, restart your business and make a new future. I didn't have an easy pregnancy this time. And generally, for many reasons, life seemed harder than ever.

Our daughter was born and it didn't take long for postpartum depression to steal me away, for far longer than I should have allowed it to. I was scared to get the help I needed and I let it get the best of me. I'm truly sorry for that. I'm mostly sorry that I sometimes let it get the best of us.

It's easy to love a partner when it's just the two of you. Our priorities were never tested then—you were at the top of my to-do list, and I was at the top of yours. But—funny thing—this whole parenting thing seemed to make life a little more complex. And when your kids are little, and completely dependent upon you, there are many days when there just isn't much left over for anything or anyone else.

Babe, we're in it right now. Really in it. These are the parenting trenches. The baby years. These years can make or break us. And can I be so bold as to say: I think they're making us.

They're making us learn how to communicate better. How to find common ground when we disagree about real stuff, like the ways we want to raise our children. We're invested in not only the outcome but the short term effect. We're a team.

They're making us think about the future. Not just the fun stuff, but the difficult stuff like estate planning, life insurance, and college funds for the kids. They're making us challenge ourselves to provide our children with comfort and opportunities. We've always worked hard but the stakes have never been this high.

You know I'm the optimist, the dreamer, while you consider yourself the realist—but I think we can agree on this: going through some of the tough stuff with you by my side has shown me that we are stronger than the tough stuff. We can get through it. We can get through anything. As long as we hold on to each other.

Motherhood transformed me. Fatherhood transformed you. And having kids completely transformed our marriage. We'll never be who we were on our wedding day again.

Time marches forward—only forward. I miss the carefree version of "us", but I love this version even more. Because we know what we're made of now, and in so many ways we didn't before.

I'm sure that in our lifetime, many more obstacles will arise that will transform our marriage. But I've never been more confident that whatever may be, we'll find a way through it—together.

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Baking Christmas cookies together is a family tradition for many, but the Centers for Disease Control is warning parents that if your recipe contains raw flour or raw eggs, you really shouldn't sneak a bite before it is cooked, and neither should your kids.

The CDC is warning people not to eat raw cookie dough, cake mix or bread as we head into prime baking season.

The agency acknowledges the appeal of a spoonful of chocolate chip goodness but asks that we "steer clear of this temptation—eating or tasting unbaked products that are intended to be cooked, such as dough or batter, can make you sick."

Salmonella from raw eggs is, of course, a concern, and so is the raw flour. According to the CDC, flour needs to be cooked in order to kill germs like E.Coli. That's why the CDC is asking parents to "say no to raw dough," not just for eating but even for playing with.

"Children can get sick from handling or eating raw dough used for crafts or play clay, too," the CDC posted on its website.

On the Food and Drug Administration's website, that agency advises that "even though there are websites devoted to 'flour crafts,' don't give your kids raw dough or baking mixes that contain flour to play with." Health Canada also states that raw flour should not be used in children's play-dough.

The warnings follow a 2016 E.coli outbreak linked to contaminated raw flour. Dozens of people got sick that year, and a post-outbreak report notes that "state investigators identified three ill children who had been exposed to raw flour at restaurants in Maryland, Virginia, and Texas. Restaurant staff had given them raw dough to play with while they waited for their food to be served."

The CDC worries that with flour's long shelf life, products recalled during the 2016 outbreak may still be in people's pantries (although the CDC notes that any raw flour—recalled or otherwise—should not be consumed).

If your kids do have flour-based play dough, don't worry.

Some parents are still choosing to use flour-based craft dough to make Christmas ornaments or other crafts this holiday season and are reducing the risks by A) making sure the kids aren't eating their art, and B) thoroughly washing little hands, work surfaces, and utensils when the dough play is over.

Other parents are choosing other types of craft clay over flour-based dough.


During the 2016 outbreak, the FDA called for Americans to abstain from raw cookie dough, an approach Slate called "unrealistic and alarmist," noting that "the vast, vast majority of people who consume or touch uncooked flour do not contract E. coli or any other infection."

Two years ago, 63 Americans were made sick by E. coli infections linked to raw flour, according to the CDC. We don't know exactly how many Americans ate a spoonful of cookie dough or played with homemade play dough that year, but we do know that more than 319 million Americans did not get sick because of raw flour.

Are there risks associated with handling and consuming raw flour? Yes, absolutely, but it's not something to panic over.

Bottom line: Don't let your kids eat raw dough when they're helping you bake cookies for Santa, and be mindful of raw flour when choosing crafts for kids.

(And if you have just got to get your raw cookie dough fix, the CDC notes that cookie dough flavored ice cream is totally safe as it "contains dough that has been treated to kill harmful bacteria." Sounds like mama's getting Ben & Jerry's tonight.)

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Twinkling lights are everywhere I look, and the magic of the holiday season is filling our house. The kids are growing more excited each day anticipating Santa's arrival and gifts are accumulating, ready to be wrapped in beautiful paper and bows.

Elf and The Grinch have been playing on repeat and the nativity scene has found a safe spot among our decorations. It's one of the busiest times of the year and it can be hard to catch your breath in the hustle and bustle of it all.

But then something stops you.

Maybe it's a pang in your heart or a memory of someone dearly missed. Maybe it's a familiar feeling of emptiness—of wanting this person to be a part of this magical, joy-filled time of year.

It's so easy to forget that many people are struck with sadness around the holidays and are longing for someone who's missing from their lives. We give and give to our families and friends and communities this time of year—food for dinners, and toys for less-fortunate children—but people don't always realize that another type of giving is needed.

The gift of comfort.

Because someone who is missing their mother, father, brother, sister, child, friend or spouse needs your connection and warmth. They need a reminder of their loved one is not forgotten, and maybe above all—just needs a hug.

Family traditions are wonderful and cherished, but they can also feel incomplete when someone is missing.

For me, I love the holidays, and watching my kids experience all the joys this season has to offer truly fills my heart. Yet, not a Christmas goes by that I don't think about what Kendrick (my first child lost at 2 months old) would have thought of this time of year.

Would he have loved hot cocoa like his sister and brothers? Would he have gotten into all the ornaments on the tree as a toddler? What toys would he have asked Santa for? What Christmas wishes would he have made for others?

I am left to wonder these things without answer. And even though I fully embrace this time of year and relish the holidays, I can't help but miss him.

I wanted to share my story as a reminder that even though your holiday cup may be filled with joy, someone you know may be wrestling with sadness. With all the merry and bright and cups of cheer, it's important to be mindful of this and to treat people with extra care. Reach out to someone you know who has lost someone, and let them know you're thinking of them. It won't go unnoticed.

Many of us have dealt with loss at some point in our lives, and we've learned to carry these special people in our hearts so that they are always with us. But missing someone never goes away. There are so many experiences in our lives we wish we could just snap our fingers and have them right by our sides—the holidays being one of those.

So as you check off your shopping lists, make your donations, trim your tree, or light your menorah—please don't forget to show care to those who may be hurting a little this holiday season.


They're certainly in a position where they could buy every item on their kids' Christmas lists, but Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher aren't planning on piling up the presents under the Christmas tree this year.

"So far, our tradition is no presents for the kids," Kunis said in an interview with Entertainment Tonight. Mom to 4-year-old daughter, Wyatt, and 2-year-old son Dmitri, Kunis says she and Kutcher are determined to not raise entitled kids—and are learning from the mistakes of Christmases past.

“We've told our parents, 'We're begging you: If you have to give her something, pick one gift,'" Kunis said. “'Otherwise, we'd like to take a charitable donation, to the Children's Hospital or a pet... Whatever you want.' That's our new tradition."

The minimalist Christmas that Kunis and Kutcher embrace makes sense on a lot of levels: It teaches kids how to be more mindful consumers, removes the emphasis on material goods... And saves you from those chaotic trips to the mall.

Going without presents doesn't mean going without

Putting a halt on presents these upcoming holidays is one way to reinforce what the season is really about: Spending quality time together as families and cherishing what we already have. But "no presents" doesn't mean "no fun," either.

Some of our favorite non-material gift suggestions include:

  • Experiences
  • Lessons
  • College contributions
  • Coupon booklets
  • Piggy bank donations
  • Gifts for others

Or you could take a cue from Kunis and Kutcher without going all the way: Maybe you only focus on one or two quality gifts. Or pass on anything that will likely get discarded to the bottom of the toy box before next year's holidays.

Think of Christmas gifts for kids kind of like eggnog: A little goes a long way.

[Originally published October 11, 2017]

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