How to Strike the Right Balance
Helping Your Child Juggle School and Outside Pursuits
By H.M. Cauley
We live in a fast-paced world, with many parents struggling tobalance the demands of home life and a busy career. And that world is increasingly affecting our children, who are enrolled in extracurricular activities and organized sports in an effort to help them become wellrounded individuals and increase their chances of getting into a good college. On top of that, relocating to a new city and school can bring the added pressures of fitting in and making new friends.
The result can be a crushing weight of activities that keeps students rushing from one to another at breakneck speed. Too often, this hectic approach can backfire, creating stressed-out students who can suffer both academically and socially. Striking the right balance is crucial for kids’ health. So how can parents keep them from getting overloaded?
The struggle to find the right mix of activities and hours to spend on them should never take a backseat to academics, cautions Jennifer Diaz, school counselor at White Oak Elementary in Sugar Hill.
“Yes, children benefit from sports or dance, but schoolwork is more important,” she says. “So many of our students are overcommitted, because there’s a lot of societal pressure to keep kids busy. But if you’re so tired you’re not able to get your schoolwork done, then it defeats the idea of doing well.”
“I have seen kids with busier calendars than I have!” says Natasha Moon, head counselor at Tucker Middle School in DeKalb County. “Some of them do not do so well, which is not surprising. Some of us adults don’t multitask well, either. I tell parents if they’re feeling haggard taking their children to all these activities, imagine how the child feels having to participate in all of them.”
At Tucker Middle, students can sign up for academic clubs that focus on robotics, languages, science and reading, as well as off-campus activities. Moon encourages them to find a balance by communicating their schedules with teachers and staff. She also works with them to establish a calendar that assigns specific times to each activity, including homework and studying. “They all have their phones, so we use them to come up with a calendar that helps them focus on the classes that need the most attention. We even talk about how to use time wisely while just driving in the car,” she says.
Let Kids Be Kids
While communication and time-management skills are important, it’s essential that children be given time to just be themselves. As with academics, “let them pick one or two things they’re very interested in and just do those,” Moon advises. Allowing children to choose an activity they’re excited about can help ensure that they stick with it, and spur their personal growth.
What’s more, children need unstructured time to just play, relax, or socialize—and to process what they’ve learned and experienced. Spending time with other kids also allows children to practice the new physical, mental and social skills they’ve developed.
Letting kids be kids can be even more important when those children are dealing with learning difficulties. Parents of children with special needs can feel compelled to push their kids further than is helpful, says Catherine Trapani, head of school at The Piedmont School of Atlanta, which serves children with autism.
“We have students putting in more than 40 hours a week, going to school and a combination of therapies,” she says. “Parents of children with autism are constantly afraid they’re not doing enough, when sometimes, too many things are torture.”
Trapani says parents absorbed in meeting a child’s special needs often overlook a key point.
“I tell them, ‘Your child is still a child.’ They need to learn on their own, and they can do that by allowing them to be like other children,” she says.
What Colleges Really Want
Juggling school and extracurricular activities can be stressful enough for kids. But that stress can multiply when parents push them to take on more projects and activities in the hopes of getting into a good college. For many parents, it’s never too soon to start building a child’s resume for higher education.
“Kids think they have to be good at everything,” says Susan Reilly, director of college counseling at Mount Pisgah Christian School in Johns Creek. “But often, that’s not what colleges are looking for. Colleges want them to pursue what they really enjoy with integrity and commitment. Otherwise, it’s just juggling, and so many of our kids are juggling. It’s hard for families to find good balance.
“The big word right now is ‘authentic,’” she continues. “They want their applicants to be who they are, and not present themselves as someone they think that college is looking for.
They should pick an activity because of the positive experience they’ll have, not because they think it will look good to a college.”
Part of the problem, Reilly says, is the misconception that all those juggled activities are the key to being accepted into college. “The truth is, colleges accept more kids than they reject. But many parents and students still work themselves into a frenzy, thinking they have to do it all.”
And parents can feel the pressure to get their students into a variety of activities well before high school.
“We find even eighth-grade parents want to know what their students should do to prepare for college, when they really should be asking, ‘What is my child interested in?’” Reilly says. “Look at their strengths and let them increase their level of commitment so they can really make an impact in that area, whether it’s sports, student government or academics.”
By having realistic expectations for your children, making sure they don’t take on too many extracurricular activities at the expense of schoolwork, and allowing time for them to be themselves, you can best help position them for success in school and beyond.
Tips For Keeping Balance
- Create an activity budget. Figure out how many hours in a week your child can safely spend on outside activities while still keeping up with schoolwork.
- Check in with your kids often. Are they enjoying their current activities? Do they feel overwhelmed?