Doing it all
Extra-curricular activities can be a great source of pleasure and self-esteem for children. But it can easily become a case of too much of a good thing, with quite the opposite effect, writes Andrea Mara
IS your child learning Mandarin, taking weekly ski lessons or making up part of the junior Olympic archery team? Mine neither. But much as we don't want to hothouse our children, there is a certain amount of pressure to take part in after-school activities. Could doing too many activities be hindering their development? And how do we strike the right balance?
When my own daughter started school, I planned for her to do just a few activities. I knew she'd be tired after school, plus activities are expensive. What I didn't factor in was the pressure that comes from children themselves; if a child begs for weeks on end to be allowed to go to gymnastics class, it's hard to say no. I also hadn't allowed for the fact that plenty of activities are very good for kids from a health and fitness perspective. And some, like swimming, are arguably critical.
Then there's the childcare element, as mother of three Emily O'Neill discovered. "My daughter started doing lots of activities on account of the fact that I was working and she was in after-school care," she says. "So it was as easy to have her doing an activity as being in the after-school club, and cost-wise, much the same."
Of course there are lots of benefits for kids who do activities. They may be fitter than they would otherwise be, they will likely make new friends, and they may even discover a life-long passion or an extraordinary talent.
But if they are signed up for a high number of activities, could it be detrimental to their development?
"Too many structured activities can hinder the social, emotional and behavioural development of children," says Eithne McLeavey, play therapist and child/adolescent psychotherapist. "When a child's free time is greatly restricted, developing and maintaining friendships can be compromised. It can lead to a balancing act that can weigh heavily on the side of over-stretching the child. Homework time can be compromised and the child can fall behind on school-work."
This is something that rings true for O'Neill. "My daughter's homework is increasing, and it's too much to be doing an activity every day," says the HR manager. "She has sports on a Saturday morning too, and her camogie matches are starting on a Sunday, so basically as a family we have activity fatigue."
McLeavey sees the parental downside too. "Parents are under pressure to deliver and collect the child from activities, and balance their own time, often causing stress which can take its toll on the whole family."
So what should parents do? Particularly if children are very keen to try a certain activity, and if it's something that's good for them, should parents nevertheless say no?
It's not so much about saying no, but rather finding the right balance, and McLeavey has some common-sense tips for approaching this:
•When looking at activities for your children, consider their interests and abilities, and make sure activities are age-appropriate.
•Consider the expected time commitment involved, be it for practice, drama, rehearsals or training.
•Be aware that no size fits all, and that each child's individual needs must be considered.
•Check regularly whether your child continues to enjoy the class; activities should above all remain pleasurable for them.
And what about the more competitive activities - are we putting too much pressure on our children?
McLeavey stresses that the emphasis should be put on the pleasure gained from the activity, not the competition. "Exams and competitive sports can cause stress, and put extra pressure on a child," she says. "On the other hand, some children enjoy the challenge of competition, and often thrive on achievement. It allows opportunities for children to demonstrate their achievements and promotes self-esteem. This can be very valuable for children who struggle with academic work."
So like most elements of parenting, it's about finding balance. And there's no one-size-fits-all rule; one child may cope perfectly well with an activity every day, while another is exhausted after one per week. It's about considering the appropriateness, monitoring the enjoyment, and above all, looking at the individual needs of the child.
Or, as O'Neill puts it, you could end up with activity-fatigue.