Childhood is a time of play, adventure and learning, right? For some, yes. But for other children it is a time of overwork and stress, and the many activities that are filling their diaries are costing their parents large sums of money.
Kids as young as four are being diagnosed with stress triggered by being too busy. Starting with kindergarten or school, some parents are adding sport, music, dance, yoga or additional art classes or outdoor activities like horse-riding to their children’s weekly schedule, leaving very little time for the busy work of growing up.
Nathalie Brown, a childhood behavioural consultant at Easy Peasy Kids, says she has noticed a rise in the stress levels of pre-school age kids, resulting directly from their parents packing their week with too many activities.
“Children should not be portraying levels of stress due to being over-committed,” she says.
A 2012 survey of more than 1000 children in Western Australia found kids were five times more stressed than they were during the Great Depression in 1936, with 35 per cent saying they had “too much stress” in their lives.
Professor Stuart Shankar, a Canadian researcher who has spent 25 years looking at how people self-regulate their behaviour, says some children spend so much time responding to stress-causing situations they do not know what it means to feel calm and deal with situations in productive or rational ways. That leads to kids with poor self-control.
“What we’re seeing is a generation of children whose nervous system is essentially being overstimulated,” he said on a visit to Australia in 2012.
Extra-curricular leads to under-performance
While a moderate level of extra-curricular activity has been linked with better academic performance and well-being, being over-scheduled has the opposite effect.
“It gets intense for the parent, and the children pick up on the stress of the parent to get them there all the time as well,” says Ms Brown.
She adds some kids, even when they are just starting school, are scheduled to attend an activity every morning and evening, such as swimming, dancing, ice-skating, tap, ballet, music and – to relax – yoga.
She cites one example of a six year-old child unable to book a session due to too many other commitments.
“It is almost at the point where it sounds at times like a bragging right, ‘My son does this, that and something else and he is positively thriving’. I beg to differ at how much the child is actually thriving. Experience tells me the six year-old is likely to reach burn out.”
Even Australian government departments, including the New South Wales Department of Education, have warned against over-scheduling children.
“The over-scheduling is a problem not only in its own right – kids get tired and their parents get tired rushing them from one thing to another – it’s also a downside that children aren’t learning the skills that are important in the early childhood and primary years,” Kathy Walker, education consultant and author, says in advice on the NSW Education Department website.
Ms Walker advises that parents allow free time for their children to play on their own. This provides them with the space to make up games and activities that teach them how to cope with boredom and foster their imagination.
Similarly, Ms Brown warns kids should not be doing more than four activities per week – less if they are just starting school. In many children she has treated for behavioural issues, cutting back on activities has made a huge difference.
“We are so keen for them to develop and flourish in all areas that we forget it is good to do nothing and be at home and read a book and do some drawings,” she says.
Draining the family purse
The cost of over-scheduled kids is also financial. The Australian Scholarships Group estimates parents will pay on average up to $1,773 per year for school related extra-curricular activities for high school students and $1,585 for primary school kids.
This includes activities such as school camps, musical instruments and lessons, sports and equipment, gym, drama or dance. Any private lessons or activities were not included.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, kids from a higher socio-economic background were more likely to play sport or attend dance classes.
Employment was also a factor. When both parents were working, kids were 18 per cent more likely to be involved in dance or sports, while kids from unemployed single parent families were 20 per cent less likely.
With the cost of extra-curricular activities running into the thousands, these statistics show it can hit family budgets hard, or exclude some kids from participating at all.