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August 14, 2013

Calling a timeout on being a kid

How parents can manage stress when student activities go into overtime

By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer

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Sarah Myers, 10, of Bloomfield Township, poses with a trophy she earned as a competitive go-kart racer. She also spends her free time horseback riding, playing soccer and studying.

Bloomfield Township mom Patricia Myers knows a thing or two about being busy. Her two children, 10-year-old Sarah and 14-year-old Rod, are exemplary students with grades at the top of their class. They also enjoy water skiing in their spare time.

But then there’s Sarah’s horseback-riding lessons, Rod’s acting auditions, her soccer practice and his computer camp. Oh, and there’s also Rod’s three-week-long bicycling trip from Boston to Maine, his volunteer time at a Detroit soup kitchen and his award-winning hobby as a filmmaker. Don’t forget, both kids regularly compete and win in go-kart races at the Michigan International Speedway. 

The Myers family is always on the move, trying to accommodate their kids’ many activities. While it sounds demanding, Myers said she knows her children wouldn’t have it any other way.

“There are times in every family that you have a harried schedule, but we’ve been fortunate because we’ve been able to make it work. The thing that makes this a bit more fluid is that they’re old enough to decide what their own interests are. These are things they like to do,” she said.

While the Myers family may be special, they’re hardly unique. Across the country, students are adding more and more to their routine, from sports and clubs to hobbies and extra-curricular ventures. Parents are stretching their wallets and vehicle mileage to make sure their kids have the chance to explore as many interests as possible, and perhaps mold their future in the process.

But that could also mean that children could be stretching themselves too thin, according to psychologist Lewis Smith. From his Troy-based office, Smith said he does a great deal of family counseling, and often sees children who are pushed beyond their means to keep up with their rigorous schedules.

“Many, many children are falling through the cracks because they’re not able to perform at levels we traditionally expect them to perform at. There’s more schoolwork and less assistance and less time spent with them in schools and at home. We’re seeing great demands placed on them, and they’re not able to function like they did before,” said Smith.

Of course, a few baseball practices or Girl Scout meetings are hardly enough to stress out a student. But in today’s world, Smith said, you’re often combining demanding schedules with other stressors, like excessive educational requirements and changing family structures due to things like divorce or new work demands in the lagging economy. When you throw into the mix the many dramas brought upon kids through constant interaction happening through texting and social media, the result is a cocktail of pressures that can weigh students down.

“There are just unbelievable requirements (for schools) to meet standardized test measures and make sure everyone is performing. Teachers are going to be evaluated if the children don’t reach these goals, so the amount of work being sent home is truly, in many cases, excessive. And the need for students to compete and get into various schools is really quite extreme,” he said. “Add to that the No. 1 addiction of individuals today — social media, and the video games and the constant texting and communications between kids and their friends — there is no interaction for them really with other kids and they’re not getting any kind of social skills. Family dinners are sort of a thing of the past, and kids are really in some ways disconnected from family, disconnected from interaction with peers other than by digital means, and they’re getting very little positive feedback from family supports, friends and the teachers that have put such demands on them.”

Myers isn’t too worried about her kids getting burned out as a result of their schedules. She said they’ve got ample downtime to spend doing what they like on their own, as well as plenty of family interaction.

“Dinner time is very important to us. A lot of stuff comes out at the dinner table that doesn’t come out when you’re running around during the day. And we play games as a family, and it’s the kind of environment where everything else is shut out. We consider those pretty important times,” she said, adding that every so often, appointments need to be cut. “Sometimes, you can’t do it all. We have to discuss what would be the best choice to make with long-term goals and short-term goals, and you have to make a decision. School comes first more than anything, and (they’re) pretty good about accommodating what needs to be done.”

Myers’ tip for busy families is to make a plan. Knowing what’s coming up down the line will keep kids from getting overwhelmed, she said.

Smith agreed, but added that it’s essential that time with family be incorporated into set schedules. If caregivers can keep up with their children by engaging with teachers, coaches and friends, they’ll be able to see if their student is on track — or potentially getting burned out.

“Parents can spend some time with their children and ask teachers to reduce the quantity of homework assignments but not the quality of the assignments. Have the work done during the day while they’re at school, and ask the schools for more resources like interns and parapros that could be provided by universities,” he said. “Be an involved parent and ask how your kids are doing. Cultivate your own garden and take care of your children.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at tesshaki@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1095.