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The Benefits of Being Busy

by Jenny Deam

My three kids were born in the mid to late 90s, an era when the perfectly respectable noun “parent” had just becomea verb. To Parent: an active pursuit that requires vigilance, study, and a full tank of gas.

I, like so many moms around me, attacked this verb with zeal, determined that my children would have all of the opportunities my calendar and checkbook could bear. I was deeply proud of these little people, who seemed to blossom as they tried, and sometimes even excelled at, an ever-lengthening list of activities. And, secretly, I was also proud of me, as I attended every Mother’s Day tea and sat on the sidelines for every soccer game. Sure, I got cranky and exhausted and was tempted to yell “Enough!” Who didn’t? But I was also pretty sure I was doing right by my kids, and they seemed to genuinely love their very full childhoods that would be over much too soon.

Then, sometime after the millennium turned, so, too, did the parenting advice. Parents who a few years before had been urged to sign their kids up for everything were now being scolded for doing precisely that. The pace of over-full schedules was damaging American children. Busy was bad. The blades of helicopter parenting must be clipped and calendars emptied so everyone could return to the slower, simpler, happier times of the past.

There was just one pesky little detail: It wasn’t true.

That's right. Along with a growing number of parents and experts, I see the pendulum swinging back (yet again) and am putting my stake in the sand: Busy is good, and sometimes, busy is even better

The benefits of kids being busy

Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, co-authored a study in 2006 that challenged the wildly popular notion that kids were anxiety ridden and doomed to drug abuse and unhappiness because there were over-scheduled, over-stressed, and over-busy. She studied 300 eighth graders in an upper-middle-class suburb who were involved in about 7 to 8 hours of extracurricular activities a week, ranging from sports to arts programs to civic functions. “We found nothing negative at all,” she said, about both the number of activities and the hours spent in them by kids.  

Soon after her study was released, an even larger study surfaced that also took aim at the talking point du jour and found it lacking. Yale psychologist Joseph Mahoney looked at 2,100 5- to 18-year-olds and similarly concluded that the more time kids spent in organized activities, the better their grades, the higher their self-esteem, and the richer their relationships with their parents. Even kids who spent more than 20 hours a week in activities did not suffer, he said.

His ultimate conclusion was not only that a lot of activities are good for kids, but that he also wished that more children from all income brackets could participate in as many activities.

“Busy can be good,” says Luthar. Whether rounding a base in Little League or being third swan from the left in a ballet recital, kids gain a sense of self and of accomplishment from involvement in activities. They also learn valuable life lessons about gracious losing (and winning) and discovering teamwork.  

In my childhood, girls were shut out of most sports. What I wouldn’t have given to participate in a program such as Girls on the Run, in which my 10-year-old daughter not only runs in 5K races but also learns about positive body image and how to navigate the tricky pre-teen terrain of BFF-land.

The New York Times recently reported that an economist at the Wharton School of Business was able to quantify that girls who participated in team sports did better in life. The findings showed a 20 percent increase in education among women who once participated in team sports and a 40 percent rise in employment. 

Hello? Wasn’t that our hope all along?

Finding the balance            

Cindy Tolbert, a mother of three who lives in my neighborhood, remains unapologetic for her family’s crowded calendar. “I think as long as kids are getting enough rest and a little bit of downtime to still be kids, being on the busy side can be a good thing. We didn't have nearly the opportunities that our kids do now. I think it's great they can try so many different things to find their strengths. With schools all but phasing out Phys. Ed. and art, many times the only exposure they’ll get to those things is through extracurricular activities.” 

Her 11-year-old daughter, Grace, is on a swim team, plays violin in the school orchestra, takes religious education classes and does hospitality ministry at their church. Nine-year-old Lexi is also on a swim team, takes piano, plays in the school orchestra, takes religious education and is an altar server. Jack, 6, takes piano lessons, swimming lessons, takes religious education classes and plays soccer, T-ball or basketball depending on the season.              

“I know for my kids,” Tolbert says, “they are much happier and content when they have fairly well-defined days—with, of course, a little bit of fun and silliness thrown in.” 

Still, it is a fine and shifting line that every family must draw between presenting kids with opportunities that might to lead to lifetime passions and weighing them down with misplaced expectations. Luthar says the damage comes not from the activities themselves but from the feeling that the love and approval of parents or coaches is dependant solely on their ability or performance. 

I think we can all agree on that one. Interests come and go. Parents need to know when to back off, and even let kids quit if they aren’t enjoying themselves. I remember one dad on the soccer sidelines screaming at his 6-year-old that he would pay her $5 if she scored a goal. The poor little girl looked ready to cry. 

Still, I’m skeptical of any wholesale return to the so-called simpler, slower times. Simple is one of those loaded words fraught with smugness. In our house we don’t really do simple well. In theory, it’s a nice image of everyone linking arms and singing around the piano, but who really does that? The best family moments come unexpectedly and are just as likely to come when we’re together at some kid event. 

“Kids today are actually closer to their parents than in past generations,” says Joshua Coleman, co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families. He cautions against revisionist history. Research has shown that parents today, both married and single, spend more time teaching, caring for, and playing with their children than parents did in the supposed golden age of the family in the1960s. 

“Kids really do feel the investment and sense of care that their parents are putting into them,” Coleman says. 

My mother is equal parts critical and baffled by my involvement and the pace of my life as a mother. When I was a child, she didn’t get on the floor to do puzzles with us or read to us every night. She rarely attended mundane school events. It wasn’t that she was neglectful or loved me less than I love my kids; it just wasn’t in the parenting manual back then. 

Sometimes I wonder which of us got it right.

Probably both. And we both screwed up plenty. Perhaps that is the truest definition of "parent.” Both noun and verb.

To find out what parents have to say about busy schedules, see the results of Cozi's Busy Family survey.

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Jenny Deam is a writer who lives in the Denver, CO area. She writes for national and regional magazines, specializing in family issues. She also writes about the West for the Los Angeles Times. She is working on a book about international adoption birth parent searches. She is married and has three children.

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