The Benefits of Busy

For many families, figuring out how many after-school activities are too many is a struggle. For parents who fear they're "overscheduling" their children, a new study carries a soothing message. The paper, published last week by the Society for Research in Child Development, is the first to take a data-driven look at the issue--and whether being so busy is really a bad thing. The study suggests the phenomenon is more isolated than media reports suggest: in fact, 40 percent of children (ages 5 to 18) are engaged in no activities, typical kids spend just five hours a week in structured activities, and very few children--3 to 6 percent--spend 20 hours a week. On average, most kids spend far more time watching TV and playing games. And for kids who are extremely busy, there's also good news: the more activities they do, the better kids stack up on measures of educational achievement and psychological adjustment. "This popular concern [about overscheduling] has been generated by a couple of parenting books and the media," says Yale professor and lead author Joseph Mahoney. But looking at the data, "it's hard to argue that kids are overscheduled."

That news will be welcome in households like the Oviedos', in Highland Park, Ill. Nine-year-old Bianca spends six hours a week in rhythmic-gymnastics classes and three hours a week at ballet, plus a half-hour piano lesson. "The alternative would be playing on the computer or watching TV," says her mother, Anca, who believes Bianca benefits by learning to focus, making new friends and acquiring new skills.

The new paper doesn't sway some experts who've advocated against activity-creep. They say kids are far busier--and overstressed by it all--than the numbers suggest. "This is an example of researchers using big data sets to dispute the lived experience of many, many parents and families," says William Doherty, a University of Minnesota family-studies professor. Some skeptics question whether the self-reported time-diary data are really accurate; others say they don't account for all the minivan time spent getting between activities. Alvin Rosenfeld, co-author of "The Over-Scheduled Child," says: "If people follow this advice [and do more activities], I think it will be pretty damaging."

Despite the doubters, the new data are a small step toward a better understanding of what's best for kids. And no matter what the numbers show, there's no disputing that every child is different--and some will absolutely do better with less. Lisa Dilg of South Lyon, Mich., feels as though her 6-year-old twins, Robert and Elizabeth, are the only kids in town who don't take skiing and ice-skating lessons, and she recently pulled Robert out of tae kwon do. "This poor kid was so tired ... [saying] 'Mommy, can we stay at home?' says Lisa. "There is nothing wrong with cuddling up on the couch with Mom and Dad." And for families who prefer to bond on the sidelines of soccer fields, the latest research can provide a different kind of comfort.