Pandemic ‘silver lining’: How slashing over-scheduling may be saving kids’ life skills

Before her kids’ routine was blown up by the pandemic in March 2020, Sarah Sweeney had much in common with other action-oriented parents keen to provide their children with enriching extras.

“Every night, 5pm to 8pm, Sunday to Friday, we had some sort of extracurricular activity,” says Sweeney, who like her husband, works full-time. “It was AFL three days per week or soccer two days per week for my son, Hugo, or, for my daughter, Charlotte, netball three days per week, tennis two days per week and dancing (tap, jazz, ballet and hip-hop) two days a week”.

Both kids did golf and swimming two days a week.

Working mother Sarah Sweeney with her children Hugo, 13 and Charlotte, 11. The family chose to cut back extracurricular activities to two per child, per week and is happy with the decision.Credit:Joe Armao

Sweeney left for her 90-minute daily commute very early, “to ensure my kids were at their sports commitment by the required time”: “On weekends, I was either the kids’ taxi or their caddie – while also trying to find time for housework.”

By the time COVID-19 hit, “we were all exhausted”.

Now, like other parents planning a reset as school returns, the Sweeneys have seriously cut back. The kids concentrate on just two activities each and have time to have friends over and just be. Charlotte has taken up baking.

New research suggests that rather than removing opportunity, slashing extracurricular activities may be good for children’s social skills. Too much structured time may erode their chance to develop important characteristics, like coping on their own.

The discussion, raised by a wider study into how schools can support kids’ mental health, reignited the simmering debate over “how many is too many extras”; some commentators say questioning the value of after-school activities amounts to a subtle swipe at working parents who need them to buy time, others argue the pre-COVID rushing had gone too far – driving up stress and anxiety for kids and parents.

Murdoch Children’s Research Institute Professor Harriet Hiscock, who was involved in the study, says an increasing number of children are struggling with basic skills such as empathy, friendship and coping with change or disappointment because they had little unstructured and unsupervised time in which they faced small challenges without adults to smooth them out.

“A silver lining of COVID that we all saw was kids couldn’t attend all these extra activities; if you went to the park at any time during the day it was full of kids on their bikes playing with slightly older kids without supervision, which is fantastic,” says Professor Hiscock, a paediatrician and director of the Royal Children’s Hospital Health Services Research Unit.

Children used skate parks more during lockdowns, including this one in Sydney’s Balmoral.Credit:Edwina Pickles

“It’s where they’re going to learn to get along with each other, problem-solve and all those basic things we need for our mental health.”

Raising her two kids taught Professor Hiscock that “a maximum of two activities a week” is about right: “I’m hoping that happens post-COVID; that kids are going to be left to play and do activities themselves – it’s for the sanity of the parents too, so they’re not spending the whole time rushing around on the road.”

Port Melbourne mother of two Melanie, who works at a financial institution where permission is required to be named in media, says she is having “the exact same conversations” with friends about pushing back on ambient pressure on middle-class parents to roll out the extras, and about the post-pandemic desire to slow the pace.

“We [she and her husband] both work full-time in white-collar jobs and … all the parents I know are pulling back from kids’ activities and all that crazy extracurricular stuff because it’s a bloody nightmare, all the running around,” she says.

“All the parents I know are pulling back from all that crazy extracurricular stuff because it’s a bloody nightmare, the running around.”

While lockdown was horrendous, “the slow pace of not rushing out the door at the end of the day to get kids to a myriad of activities was fantastic.”

She recalls psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, an adolescent mental health specialist, telling her that children should choose an activity about which they feel “a spark”. After the great re-opening, her son cut back to basketball and breakdancing, and her daughter to school rowing and dancing.

Carr-Gregg is no fan of bulk activities and says the exhausting fad is driven by parents seeing others posting on Instagram about kids’ success at them, and “keeping up with the Joneses”.

“Social media has amplified it, where previously it used to be a discussion around the school gate which was almost a psychological peeing competition to see who had the most activities; ‘My kid goes to Kumon [tutoring], swimming and tennis on a Monday, what does your kid do?’.”

Dr Michael Carr-Gregg says large numbers of extracurricular activities for children are “a source of narcissistic supply” for some parents.Credit:Simon Schluter

“When you talk to the children, all they want is to feel safe, valued, listened to and have some time to play, and this unstructured play seems to be dying in the arse,” he said.

But Warren Cann, a psychologist and CEO of the Parenting Research Centre, disputes the existence of hard data about the effect of multiple extracurricular activities: “Social commentators who claim children are over-scheduled have not produced data to support this claim – anecdote simply does not cut it when it comes to making sweeping population generalisations.”

Organised activities are good for children’s development and wellbeing and for the community, he says, and “parents are doing a great thing for their kids when they support children’s involvement”. The inability to access them is viewed as a key disadvantage of children for poorer socio-economic backgrounds.

There has been a slowing – the question is, is it sustainable or are we so drawn into our busy lives that we get back on the hamster wheel?

For teens, “there are benefits to reducing large slabs of unstructured and unsupervised time, and the opportunities to connect with adults other than parents who can act as mentors and teachers (especially when teen-parent relationships are strained) is particularly valuable,” says Cann.

Even so, for those who can afford it, the line between healthy participation and headache-inducing overload is “eternal”, according to the Victorian Children’s Clinic’s Lexi Frydenberg. She has been in paediatrics for 20-plus years, and a parent for 18, and says, “I’ve been talking about this probably on a weekly basis.”

“In higher socio-economic demographics there has been this push to entertain, educate and stimulate children, and often we feel school is for learning and after school activities are for acquiring skills and practising those. The essential one is swimming.”

In mid-to-late primary school, among middle-class families there has been “significant scheduling and potentially over-scheduling to the detriment of kids” – but COVID “has corrected some of that”.

The pluses of extracurricular activities include promotion of physical activity that combats the obesity epidemic, they allow parents work time between the end of the school day and pick up (if transport can be shared) and they provide a healthy alternative to aimless screen time.

“There are a whole lot of reasons we engage in a lot of after school activities and some are very valid; but when you realise many [children] have things on four or five days a week, often until quite late in the evening, it can have a significant impact on their sleep and wellbeing, or ability to just be still and learn how to relax because they’re on the go all the time,” says Dr Frydenberg.

She agrees with Professor Hiscock that enforced periods of slowness have shown parents that children don’t need to be doing structured and organised activities every day, and has seen them trying to make changes.

“I think there has been a slowing – the question is, is it sustainable or are we so drawn into our busy lives that we get back on the hamster wheel?

Sarah Sweeney was always a taxi or a caddie for her children when they did multiple extracurricular activities at weekends. The family has since chosen to slow down.Credit:Joe Armao

“I’ve had a lot of parents say, ‘On the one hand, I’m really tempted to reinstate activities they have missed out on, fun things, joy and connection’ – but on the other they’ve realised the family is less stressed and overwhelmed and the child was happier with fewer commitments and structure.”

It is a conversation witnessed by psychotherapist and counsellor, Georgina Manning, a national educator in child wellbeing for parents and schools. Parents tell her they want to ease the activity burden. They say, “but once the kids go back to school, I don’t know how to put it into practice”.

“They’re worried about getting caught up in that whole culture of comparison: if other parents are doing this then I should too.”

“We’re becoming more and more outcome-based in education, and there’s real pressure on parents to provide as much opportunity as possible for the child,” she says.

“What I see a lot is parents saying, ‘I’m so sick of having to do all this stuff I don’t want to do, but then I feel like I’m not a good parent if I don’t’.”

Sarah Sweeney, for one, says she has seen the benefits of scaling down and won’t be going back. “Once upon a time, I thought we were invincible and it’s just the way life is – always on the go.

“Now we are using our extra time to explore national parks, try a new cafe, visit family on the other side of Melbourne, see a movie or simply relax at home spending quality time with each other. We’ve even got to know our neighbours. I don’t believe that dropping extracurricular activities will reduce kids’ opportunities to develop social skills. [In fact] I think the reverse.”

Liam Mannix’s Examine newsletter explains and analyses science with a rigorous focus on the evidence. Sign up to get it each week.

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