At what point is a child being too active?


Current media is full of warnings that kids are being overbooked, overstimulated and, ultimately, overwhelmed. While articles on stress used to invariably feature the children of Japan, taxed by the country’s rigorous academic pressures and long hours of juku (cram school), the focus now is going international.

Experts point out that loading up kids’ schedules with too many activities edges out precious time for unstructured, creative “downtime,” family interactions and homework. The popularity of two recent books — “The Over-Scheduled Child” (St. Martin’s Griffin) co-authored by Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise, and “The Hurried Child” (Perseus Publishing) by David Elkind — indicates that parents in the United States are beginning to pay attention.

In his book, Rosenfeld points his finger at a culprit in the U.S. — which he dubs “hyper-parenting” — and suggests that “parenting has become our most competitive sport.” In his opinion, the U.S. has adopted the Japanese ideals of education that are “the least beneficial aspect of their approach — standardized, measurable education.” In the meantime, he notes, Japan has been trying to relax academic standards, in search of a more creative educational system.

In 2002, Japan introduced yutori kyoiku (“relaxed education”), an attempt to ease the academic burden on children, and to allow kids to pursue their own interests. However, parents and sometimes students themselves, fearful of missing out on the kind of academic preparation required for entrance to choice institutions, have been signing up in droves for after-school classes and cram schools to fill in any perceived gaps in knowledge.

I got an inkling of the situation when my son brought home a list of after-school classes he had in mind for this year. He had chosen one or two after-school classes for each weekday. I admired his enthusiasm for every activity under the sun, but it seemed excessive. “I need to know these things,” he said. Though I worried I might be cutting off an opportunity or two, I asked him to trim the list to fit in time for homework and play dates.

Tokyo mom Keiko (all the mothers’ names are pseudonymous) raised her two sons three decades ago. “I hear that kids these days make things called “play dates,” she says, incredulous. “My boys didn’t make dates, they just played every day. They ran around the neighborhood and came home when the street lights went on,” she recalls.

Perfectly happy with how her sons turned out, Keiko nonetheless suspects that she might do things differently as a mother today. “There’s more competition, and the feeling is that if kids don’t start learning something early on, they’ll never get good at it. Plus, where do kids play now?”

No doubt the competition factor and concerns about a child’s future fuel in part the current popularity of extracurricular studies. Additionally, dual-income households and extended work hours make after-school activities an attractive alternative to the “latchkey kid” scenario. As one working mom put it, “better for my daughter to take a class in hip-hop than watch it on TV alone at home.”

But how much is too much? A lot depends on the age of the child. In the case of high-school students, most are in the process of learning to moderate their own involvement in clubs and sports, and are able to discuss ways to achieve a balance, but their opinions may not match parental ideals.

Elementary-school students, on the other hand, might find it difficult to contradict, or not satisfy, the wishes of their parents.

Doctors in both Japan and the U.S. are wary of issuing generalized limitations — individuals handle stress differently — but many admit off the record that an extracurricular every day of the week is considered a demanding schedule for a grade-school student. Parents of young children should take note if their children are unable to complete homework, have a sudden lack of interest in activities or food, experience irritability or suffer from a lack of sleep, general gloominess, stomachaches or headaches. These may all be signs of stress and depression.

Full-time working mother Jasmine has three children. “My kids are probably stressed,” she laments. “I think it’s because I’m always stressed. But it’s hard to know what to do.”

Experts agree that the single most crucial step is to set aside time daily, during a meal, a walk, even at bedtime, to converse with and listen to one’s children. Parents need to listen to themselves, as well. Are their questions related to performance, improvement or personal enjoyment? Does the child respond with enthusiasm and humor, or sighs and boredom?

Some parents I spoke to said they shell out for activities so their kids can “establish a network,” or “broaden their resumes of experiences” or “nurture a distinctive skill set.”

Such explicit goals, experts warn, can subliminally ratchet up the tension for all. Sensitive to unspoken expectations, kids feel burdened to make good on their parents’ extracurricular investment.

Kenichi Fujita, doctor of psychology at Kyorin University, believes the problem is not really about over-scheduling so much as about how parents approach the child vis-a-vis performance. “When parents expect too much, or replace family time with classes, that’s when things get stressful.”

Letting children decide their own schedules is a good start toward constructive listening and easing pressure. My son, for example, chose to give up one of his after-school activity selections — a cooking class — if we could study cuisine together, at home. He would choose the recipe, draw up the list of ingredients and we’d prepare the meals together. The dinners have been hit and miss, but the process and hilarity has been priceless for both of us.

The second step, a challenge for goal-oriented parents, is to schedule in a chunk of free time, each day. “The most important thing parents can do for their kids after school is let them do anything they want for a while,” says international school second-grade teacher Jon Malone. This is when children decompress and learn to exercise creative impulses.

Some parents are lucky enough to have extended family members or retired acquaintances willing to watch over a child at the local park. Others have managed to set up a round robin of childcare, with one or two parents “on duty” while the others work, shop or — wait for it! — relax. When my son was younger, I joined such a group, and found myself actually looking forward to my turn to hang out with the kids.

Alternatively, each ward in Tokyo has several municipal jidokan (children’s halls) that offer an excellent option for busy parents who want their kids to be able to direct their own playtime. Some of the best jidokan incorporate gyms, outside play areas, games, computers and arts activities. Trained child-care personnel are on hand, but children over age 6 may use the facility independently (under 6 requires adult supervision). Best of all, the facilities are free for ward residents; check ward offices for addresses and details.

Finally, how parents themselves handle stress has a profound effect on children. The ideal is for adults to display calm behavior and use stress-management skills whenever possible.

Should stress get out of hand or threaten anyone in the family, the Jido Sodansho (Child Guidance Center) accepts free consultations about children up to age 18, from teachers, parents or family members, community members, and even from children themselves. Consultations can be conducted in several languages, depending on availability, at (03) 3208-1121.