I’m often asked about where the line is drawn between “balance” and “overscheduling” a child. We talk a great deal about how children these days are enrolled in more activities than ever, but how do we know when enough is enough? 

First, start with this quiz. Answer yes or no honestly:

1. Do you find yourself often skipping dinner or eating in the car so that you can get your child to activities?
2. Does your child often complain about attending activities, or have to be persuaded or bribed to attend?
3. Do you find it challenging to make time in the week with all of your family members in one space, interacting and connecting together?
4. Has your child wanted to quit an activity, however you insisted that he/she see it through?
5. Do you often find yourself complaining to other parents about the hectic schedule that your child is living?
6. Is your child struggling at school or with social interactions with his/her peers?
7. Are you worried that if you have a “free day” in the week that your child will be bored?
8. Does your child struggle with downtime, and seems unable to entertain him or herself without structured leadership?

If you said yes to three or more of these statements, you may want to re-evaluate your family calendar. And this is okay. Slowing down is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of knowing your boundaries and making the best possible decisions for your child – and your family as a whole.

Now is the time of year when we end up signing our kids up for eleventy-million different after school activities. As we get back into the groove of the school year, with reminders for extra-curricular activities everywhere, we might be tempted to fall into the trap of believing this is good for our kids.

But hold up just a second – maybe it isn’t?!?

safeguard development

As parents, one of our main jobs in the growing up of our kids is to safeguard development. And signing them up for every single extra curricular activity isn’t really what nature had in mind. Rather, our kids need a healthy balance of a variety of experiences with plenty of downtime.

Here are some things to consider as you figure out what to sign up for and what to opt out of.

What is the right amount of extracurricular activities?

The answer to this question is going to be unique to every child and every family. Some things to think about include your child’s temperament – the more sensitive and intense, the more likely your child will require a lot of downtime outside of school hours in order to function optimally. Also think about your child’s learning profile. If school is really challenging, then being able to take a breath after school rather than rushing off to the next activity will be important.

Another thing to consider is your child’s intrinsic motivation to be participating in the activity. If your child is super pumped about soccer, and just aches to be out on that field, then that internal drive will be golden in carrying them through the impact of a tighter schedule. Just be careful to keep a handle on it so it doesn’t take over your child’s life.

How do you choose what to actually sign kids up for?

The variety of available after-school activities is mind-boggling. And so, to narrow the field down a little try to think about your choice as a combination of your child’s interests, and your wants.

For example, our family lives near the water so for our us, learning how to swim was a non-negotiable life skill and it didn’t really matter how interested our children were in learning it. They just had to.

But wait, this doesn’t mean that a parent’s wants automatically supersedes the child’s interests and desires. Here is where things get tricky. It might seem natural that your child is put into the same activities you excelled in your youth. Perhaps you were a natural hockey player, or musician, or gymnast. Despite your best efforts and dollars, your child may not have the same skills or interest that you have. Or perhaps grandma has offered to pay for piano lessons, simply because it’s something she’d like her grandchildren to do. It is in these situations that we have to examine why we are enrolling our children into these activities. Is it because we think it could lead to a scholarship or professional career? Is it because we want to see the same joy on their faces as we felt when we were participating in that same activity? It is because we just want them to be busy?

As parents, my husband and I have a strong desire to have our children experience some kind of athletic pursuit in order to support physical and emotional well-being. However, on this front, things were more child-lead as we sought out activities that each of our boys expressed a natural curiosity about.

Some have been wins, and some not so much (!)

Many we have tried out in recreational leagues where the pressure is off and the fun is on.

It is important to occasionally do check-ins with yourself and your partner when you’re mapping out the year’s activities. Consider WHY you are encouraging your child to participate in these activities. If it is for the enjoyment and experience, and your child is eager to participate, then you know you’re on the right track. However, if it is because of your own agenda, or because it’s being paid for by a well-meaning family member, it may not be in the best interest of your child or his/her schedule.

What are some things to consider as you work to find a balance?

In addition to considering the needs of your individual child, it is also important to factor in your own needs and the needs of your family.

While many of us can stretch outside of our selfishness for the benefit of our children, there is a difference between being selfish and being authentic to your own self. And let’s face it, not every parent can manage the hectic pace of a busy extracurricular kids’ calendar as well as the social interaction that comes with such a calendar. If your child’s schedule leaves you feeling overwhelmed, or if you’re finding that you’re constantly talking about how you’re running around every evening to get your child to commitments, you aren’t going to be as consciously available to your kids as they really need you to be. In this case, it’s okay to scale back.

Related to this, take into account the needs of your family. Are your other children going to have to tag along endlessly to a sibling’s activities? Does your other child need more downtime than what the family schedule is currently allowing for? Are there ways to work around this or is it a deal breaker?

Aside from family members’ coping skills, it’s crucial not to forget about time for connection. Is your family able to find connected time 4 to 5 evenings per week or are you scattered everywhere all the time? The family that connects together, stays together and functions best. Schedule in family time first, then extra-curriculars second.

scale back

 Is it okay for kids to drop out of an activity?

This is a question that comes my way all the time. The answer is YES! It is okay. But how swiftly you pull the plug depends on the age of the child and the issue at hand.

Children who are about 8-9 years and younger haven’t really developed enough to know the merits of hard-work. For them, life is really still meant to be primarily play-based. If they aren’t having fun and enjoying the activity, it is probably okay to take a pass. You aren’t teaching them that giving up is okay. Rather you are showing them that you get what kids need and that you can see this isn’t really fitting the bill. Just be sure that you are the one calling the shots here so they can feel your “swagger” safeguarding their needs.

Sometimes deal-breaking issues might present that will also force you to take a realistic look at whether this is really a good place for your child to be. Harsh coaching, unsafe practices, a bullying culture, or an intensity amongst the parents of the kids involved that is working against the well-being of all of the children are just some examples of things that might make you stop and be forced to seriously consider whether this is really a good thing for your child.

The Bottom Line

Think about what kids of centuries gone by grew up doing. They played. They spent a lot of time in nature. And they nested in their communities – imbedded in layers of relationships with other adults, family members, children, and leaders. The day of a child has changed significantly with formalized education, less time outdoors, and more isolation. Our job as parents is to figure out how do we “backdoor” the ideal routines of our ancestors in promoting our children’s healthy development.

To step capably into the lead of this, try to think of the individual child, the requirement for balance, the need for variety, and of course, the importance of sanity. And if at the end of all of this you still aren’t sure what is right in terms of extracurricular activities, just take a breath. You’ve got this. Sit with it all quietly and then go with your best guess. You can always alter course along the way if you need to.


Dr V