Stop The Insanity

Take a deep breath and spend a week with the Lee family in Minneapolis. The three oldest kids--Anna, 12, Nathan, 9, and Kristian, 7--play one sport or another practically all year round. (Baby Ilsa is only 1i so she gets a break here.) Anna's the complete jock, participating in soccer, volleyball, basketball and softball. Nathan and Kristian do it all except volleyball. In the summer, add on tennis and swim lessons. All of which means that dad, Darwin, a teacher, and mom, JoAnn, a nurse, spend an incredible amount of time making sure everyone gets where he needs to be. Family dinners? Forget about it. "I wish we had more downtime," says Darwin, somewhat wistfully. "It seems like Anna is running off almost every night... I miss seeing her. I miss talking to her."

One expert calls it "scheduled hyperactivity," the profusion of required practices--baseball, ballet, band--that has virtually obliterated old-fashioned family togetherness. Now some parents in the affluent Minneapolis suburb of Wayzata are fighting back by asking coaches, teachers and leaders of youth groups to cut their kids some slack. The goal of their newly formed group, Family Life 1st!, is to reclaim time--and to spark a national backlash against programs that penalize kids who choose to vacation with their families, for example, instead of spending the summer in mandatory practice on the soccer field.

Like so many other ills that plague middle-class America, this one, too, can be blamed on baby-boomer angst. A jammed household calendar, says Barbara Carlson, 52, a former elementary-school teacher and cofounder of the Wayzata group, has become the new status symbol. "It used to be a house or car," says Carlson. "Now you say, 'You're busy? You should see how busy we are.' It's like this merry-go-round of life. We didn't know how to get off."

Already worried about building a resume that will get their offspring into Harvard, many ambitious parents schlep their kids to violin lessons at 3 and sign them up for T-ball as soon as they're big enough to hold a bat. And that's just the warm-up. The real heavy-duty stuff begins in elementary school. Nine-year-old Keith Moffat, soon to be a fourth grader in Berkeley, Calif., has already signed his first contract, promising his soccer coach that he'll be prompt, have his cleats and shinguards on, refrain from cursing or bullying and, most important, show up for all games and practices or risk being benched. It sounds draconian, but his father, David, copresident of the local soccer league, thinks it gives the coach some (much-needed) leverage. "It's important for kids to learn honor and commitment," he says. "It builds discipline and character."

Maybe, but psychologists say that too many outside commitments destroy something kids need even more--time to connect with their parents and siblings. Family Life 1st!, believed to be the only group of its kind in the country, grew out of a forum Carlson organized last year for Wayzata parents. The featured speaker was William J. Doherty, a University of Minnesota professor of family social science who has written a book called "Intentional Families." His thesis is that if parents and kids don't make time for each other, emotional ties wither and die. "We now have a more competitive society, a more consumerist society, and these forces influence families," he says. "Raising kids becomes like product development. It's competitive parenting, all well intentioned, to develop the kid in every possible way."

The message resonated with parents like Carlson and another mother at the forum, Julie Guffy, 38, who has five kids under the age of 10. Guffy says that most people she knows have three children, usually about two years apart, with each youngster in three or four activities and one very consuming sport, like hockey, which has early-morning practice because rink time is scarce, or competitive dance, which requires travel. Guffy had already cut back on her own, limiting her kids to two activities each.

Guffy, Carlson and a dozen other parents came up with the concept of a "seal of approval" to encourage family-friendly organizations. None has been given out yet because the group is still trying to agree on what makes an activity "family friendly." Some suggested criteria: not penalizing kids for taking time off for family, religious or academic activities and deciding on practices and schedules in advance so parents can plan.

But even without the seals, the group has made many Wayzata parents begin to think about clearing their calendars. Religious organizations have been among the biggest boosters and Carlson says she's been deluged with e-mail from "parents who spent Easter in the hockey rink, Christmas afternoon at a game." And there's been support from an unexpected quarter: some local coaches agree that it's time for new priorities. "Parents in Wayzata equate success in sport to success in life," says David Gaigher, who directs the local fourth- through eighth-grade football program. "They're afraid their kids can't compete." Gaigher, a 43-year-old former Wayzata football player and University of Minnesota track star, volunteered youth football as a test case. When he tried to sell his board on fewer requirements, Gaigher says some diehard parents wanted even more practice and game time, as well as expanding the program all the way down to second grade. "The kids are easy," he says. "They just want to have fun and play football. It's the parents that are the problem."

And that, says Doherty, should be the lesson other communities take away from the Wayzata story. "The core is parents taking control of their families," he says. Who knows where that could lead? The next big status symbol just might be the number of times a week the family gets together for dinner and actually talks to each other. Now, that would really be an American revolution.