Welcome to September! If your family is like mine, September not only means kids going back to school; it also means kids starting activities again. Thinking about the activities my son is involved in leads to mixed feelings. There's a feeling of pride: I like that he is exercising regularly with his involvement in swimming; I like that his music skills are developing through keep. But, there is also the feeling of worry: Will he get stressed out fitting in these activities along with homework? Also, I think about the future: If he feels like the activities are too much pressure or time now, could he get burned out and not want to continue them in the future? My confession comes now. When my son was in third grade, there was a point before Christmas when his activities got to be too much, and he became stressed out. He got emotional and had a hard time sleeping for a week or so. It wasn't just the activities that led to his anxiety; my behavior contributed to his becoming stressed out. I set too high an expectation for him with regard to chorale. I wanted him to know all the songs perfectly. I had him practice them so that he could sing them all alone without error. He was not singing solo, so there was no need for this. I see now that I fell into Trap #1: Feeling like the child's performance reflects on the parent. Because of this concern, I also fell into Trap #2: Asking the child to spend an unrealistic amount of time on the activity so that the child might perform at an unrealistic level. There was also a hint of Trap #3: Comparing one's child with other children. Fourth grade worked out better for my son in terms of his activities. It may have been that he was a year older, and more accustomed to allocating time to various activities. However, there were some things that we did over the year that may have helped the activities remain fun, not stressful. Plan #1: Spread out the formal practice sessions over the week. On the day my son had chorale practice with the group, he did not go to swim practice. Plan #2: Practice for the activities a little bit every day. My son started practicing his songs for the Christmas chorale concert in October rather than in November. It's also important to carefully consider how much your individual child can handle. An older child can typically handle more activities than a younger child. A child who becomes stressed out across a variety of situations is more likely to feel overwhelmed with extra-curricular activities than a child who is more easy-going in general. As my son gets ready to start fifth grade, we face new issues in terms of his activities: what to stick with, what to end, and what to add. I like my son's being in chorale more than he does. He wants to play the viola. I recognize that I like his singing because I always wanted to sing more formally, but never did. It's another trap, Trap #4: Living vicariously through the child's involvement in an activity. As children get older, involvement in particular activities takes increasingly more time. Swimming moves from three days/week practices to four days/week plus a meet on the weekend. Children can't easily just add on more and more extracurricular activities. My son would need to spend more and more time on chorale in order to continue to improve. So, we end with Plan #3: The child's desire to continue in an activity needs to be considered. Decisions are not always straightforward. Sometimes the child's interest in the activity may just be low temporarily, and it would make sense to encourage the child to continue. The best time to end an activity also needs to be evaluated. We most often want children to persevere and not quit an activity midway through the season. However, as a general rule, the child who is interested in an activity is likely to work harder at it and enjoy it more. As parents, it's important that we foster a positive environment for our children's involvement in extra-curricular activities. We need to recognize when our investment in an activity is greater than theirs, if our goal is for the child to find the activity enjoyable and worthwhile.
Andrea Zevenbergen is an associate professor of psychology at SUNY Fredonia. She has been conducting research related to parent-child shared reading since 1990. She lives with her husband and son, who is now a fifth-grader, in Chautauqua County.