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The Over-Scheduled American Family

Are you struggling to keep up with all the family appointments? There are times I feel part taxi, part short-order cook, part maid, and part tutor. How did life become one long list of errands?

More than ever, it seems that our schedules, and that of our children, is overpacked. There are ways to simplify and de-stress our family lives—but it starts with taking a hard look at ourselves, and our families.

A certain amount of stress is a good thing. But according to many studies, today’s American kids are overburdened and stressed to a point seen previously only in psychiatric patients, according to a 2000 study analyzing five decades by Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a psychology professor at San Diego State University. The Surgeon General has also reported that 13 percent of children suffer from stress-related disorders—and some contend that this percentage is far too low since physicians often don’t label children’s sleep problems, respiratory, and bowel disorders as stress-related when they actually might be.

Part of the problem is societal. Children are now exposed to early yearly testing and have far more homework than twenty years ago. But adding to this are parents who place undue pressure on their kids to succeed and begin “hyper-parenting.”

“Hyper-parenting” is the phrase we coined to describe a child-rearing style now prevalent in many middle and upper-middle class homes,” wrote Alvin Rosenfeld M.D.and Nicole Wise, co-authors of The Over-scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-parenting Trap. “In these families, parents become overly involved in every detail of their children’s academic, athletic, and social lives. They over-enrich their children’s environment and over-schedule them.” “This style of parenting is easy to slip into if you aren’t careful” explains Julie Warner Miccichi, mom of three and co-founder of Note Investor Solutions of Atlanta, Georgia.

“The pressure to succeed is amazing and I stop and find myself sometimes slipping into a line of thinking that shocks me. For instance, adults often project very far out into the future and rarely live in the moment. We’re always planning. We project onto our young children. When one of my children wanted to not play soccer for one year, I actually found myself thinking, ‘will he be able to catch up? What if he wants to be a professional player?’ He’s five—it’s totally ridiculous!” she laughs.

Luckily, Miccichi stops herself and allows her children to not do every activity, but she warns that the competitive pressure that moms put on each other doesn’t help.

“Another mom is sending her young kids to a professional tutoring company in order to get them into a prestigious private kindergarten school. It’s kindergarten—that’s just way too much.”

Miccichi, whose children are three, five and six, advises moms to slow down.

“I think it all boils down to defining your boundaries up front. I know some moms live by the rule of one activity per child, per semester. I try to do that, but this fall I ended up breaking it! I got suckered in. I mean, it all sounds so good so you keep taking on more and more, when, really, your children may not need so many activities.” Miccichi, who comes from a large family, says she often thinks back to her childhood in Ohio and doesn’t recall a time when her mom was frantically driving back and forth taking her children to scheduled activities. Many afternoons were spent in the back yard playing, doing nothing organized.

Experts say unorchestrated play is important for relaxation, to spur creativity and to just explore. While many parents feel the world isn’t safe enough to let their children get on bikes and ride around town, experts contend there is still room for unorganized play outside—even if it is just helping mom garden, or walking the dog. So what can we do?

First of all, the stress we feel and exhibit affects our children. In order to help them, we must change ourselves. So even though we may not have much time (see Stressed for Time), we need to take a pause to de-stress.

Expert Tips to Reduce Your Family’s Stress Levels:

• Listen to relaxing music and don’t talk on the phone as you drive or commute home from work.

• Treat yourself as well as you do others in your family. “Moms often fix well-balanced meals for their children, strive to get them in bed for a good night’s sleep, and limit TV. These are good things to do for yourself as well,” says Georgia Witkins, Ph.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and director of The Stress Program at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

• Limit the number of activities for your children—consider the “one organized activity a semester” rule.

• Search for activities closer to home so you aren’t driving long distances for activities each day—this is especially important in metropolitan areas that require a lot of highway driving.

• Incorporate one day a week for the family to be together in a relaxed atmosphere with no organized activities.

• Preserve the Family Dinner! Even though Americans are working longer hours than ever before, it’s possible to have a family dinner nightly—or at least three nights a week. For high-pressured jobs requiring long hours, think of creative strategies such as working via email after the kids are in bed in order to be home nightly by 6:30 p.m. and sit around the table talking, for instance.

• Play with your family! “It’s the built-in stress-reliever. Instead of sending your husband out with the kids to the park on a Saturday so you can catch up on chores, go with them. No one will notice you didn’t get that extra load of laundry done—but your kids will remember a sunny picnic in the park with Mom and Dad,” Witkins says.

• Give children good role models. “Don’t come home and sit behind your computer screen—it’s distracting. Put it away and have a bit of fun with the kids.” Witkins advises. If you must work from home in the evenings, save it until after the kids are in bed and give yourself a nice break as well.

• Limit your alcohol consumption. If your children see that you reach for a beer or glass or wine the minute you come home in order to relax—they, too, will think that alcohol is their only means for relaxation when they get older.

• Exercise. Find twenty to thirty minutes a day, daily if possible, or at least three times a week to exercise.

• Try to stay in the moment. One way is to create a family journal. Keep a journal in the kitchen for family members to pick up and jot down funny things that happened during the day, such as my three-year-old saying, “I made a new friend today, he’s Dust! (meaning Dutch).”

Get organized!

Moms of two or more children inevitably have more to orchestrate, regardless of the number of scheduled activities we’re signed up for. Here are some time-saving tips that moms have shared to ease the burden each week:

• Place your children’s various outfits needed each week in separate colored bags by the door. So the soccer shoes for your son’s practice go in one bag and your daughter’s Girl Scout uniform goes in another bag, placed by the door, so you can “grab and go.”

• Have essential file folders in the kitchen with each child’s name on them for babysitters. These files will outline important information such as medications needed and amounts and food allergies, as well as what TV channels are allowed and how much TV is allowed, or what chores need to be done each day—so a new babysitter can step in easily if necessary.

• Enlist older siblings to help with packing lunches. It will ease your load and may even help with better eating choices. Provide two or three options for sandwiches, fruit, and snacks.

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