Stacy Zanine of Fountainville, Pa., is a full-time teacher who spends most of her non-working hours keeping up with daughters Shelby, 17, and Samantha, 12. “I might be the example of what not to do,” Zanine jokes. “My kids might be overcommitted. Some weeks I definitely feel overcommitted.”
Both girls are heavily involved in Irish dance, which means practice every Tuesday and Wednesday after school and performances a few times a month. Shelby also teaches Irish dance, coaches gymnastics, tutors middle-school students, performs community service, and is in Key Club, Honor Society, and French Honor Society. She played field hockey from second through ninth grade but gave it up because she couldn’t fit everything in and stay on top of her schoolwork. Samantha’s schedule is less demanding, but in addition to Irish dance, she participates in Reading Olympics, takes a babysitting course, and plays field hockey.
As a parent, exposing your children to culture, sports, and community activism is a worthy ambition, as it can help kids become engaged, well rounded, and even inspired. But overcommitting your kids can have just the opposite effect, creating stress and anxiety for the entire family.
It’s a delicate balance that parents seek, finding that sweet spot between getting kids engaged and leaving them overwhelmed.
But for Zanine and many other parents, the positive impact on her daughters far outweighs the adverse effects of a busy schedule. “As a parent, I feel these are worthwhile things for my girls, so we’ve tried to make it part of what we do as a family,” she says. “I don’t feel like any of our kids’ activities have taken over our life in a negative way. My girls are happy and well rounded. And that’s the most important thing.”
Potential for Burnout
While it looks like a lot on paper, the Zanines’ schedule is well within the range for how densely scheduled today’s kids are. It’s important to discover an equilibrium, which is different for every family, says Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., a psychologist and author of High-Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout. Bourg Carter says many parents today are overly concerned about their kids falling behind in ways that reach far beyond academics. “There is a parenting hysteria of sorts that if their child falls short in the game, or doesn’t get into a school, or doesn’t get on a team, they’ll be passed by.”
It’s an issue that shouldn’t be taken lightly, she says. “I believe overcommitting and overextending children is an epidemic with potentially grave and far-reaching consequences,” she says.
Zanine says Shelby sometimes gets stress headaches, which Bourg Carter says is not uncommon. “According to the latest research, young girls today are experiencing an unprecedented amount of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and other related psychiatric conditions compared to girls in decades past,” she explains. “Many mental health experts attribute this, in part, to the pervasive ‘succeed at all costs’ mentality that has high-achieving kids—and often their parents—caught in its grasp. In fact, a relatively recent study [by Professor Katariina Salmela-Aro of the University of Helsinki] found that up to 20 percent of high-achieving girls experience burnout before they graduate.”
The phenomenon of keeping an excessively busy schedule doesn’t only emerge when kids are nearing graduation and looking to beef up their college resumes. Amanda Zazoff of Wrightstown, Pa., is a stay-at-home mom whose husband works in New York, leaving her to do almost all of the parenting during the week. Her son Andrew is 8, daughter Jordyn is 6, and daughter Dylan is 3, and their schedules ensure that Mom is driving one (or all) of them somewhere at all times.
Andrew, in particular, has a heavy activity load: He plays on two baseball teams and plays lacrosse and hockey, guaranteeing him a practice or game seven days a week. Jordyn has dance and acting on Mondays and gymnastics on Fridays, but Amanda can’t squeeze in anything else. As for Dylan, “We don’t have time for her—maybe next year,” Zazoff says with a laugh.
“At the end of the day, even though I don’t work, I get right in bed at 8:30. I’m done,” Zazoff says. “I want them to do everything they want to do, as long as we can find time for it. This is just how it is. It’s what everybody does. I don’t cook dinner a lot during busy seasons—we get a lot of takeout. And I feel bad for the kids sometimes. But I don’t feel like we’re overcommitted.”
While some parents and kids are able to strike the right balance, others push and push until it has deleterious effects. Where the line lies varies from one family to another. For Bourg Carter, the most important step we have to make as a society is to educate parents on the possible consequences of going over that line. “The potential for burnout needs to be put on parents’ radar screens by helping them understand the multitude of stressors that today’s children are facing, the insidious nature of burnout, and how it impacts children,” she says. “No one thinks of burnout as a childhood experience, but it can be and is for many children.”