My kids and I had a very fun summer, maybe because they are finally old enough to entertain themselves while I work. As I write this, one is huddled up under an oak leaf hydrangea with a friend “making homes for Fairies.” The other is upstairs singing every song she can think of with our neighbor, from Aerosmith to “Amazing Grace.”

In other words, the kids are playing. And they are really, really happy.

Because play makes us happy, of course. But will it make us successful? This is hardly a theoretical question for me; it’s one with which I struggle at the start of every school year, when I find myself tempted to sign my kids up for every imaginable activity labeled “enrichment.” 

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On the table right now: piano lessons, hip hop dance, rock climbing, tennis, math tutoring, ceramics, and swimming lessons while it is still warm. They could end up doing something every day of the week—all while I’m telling the world that I don’t believe in over-scheduling my children.

It’s a problem we’re lucky to have, of course—I’m grateful that my kids have so many “enriching” opportunities. But at some point, these opportunities do start to feel more like a burden than a blessing. Why do we (I know I’m not alone here) feel the need to sign our kids up for so many darn activities? Here are my reasons:

(1) I want my kids to find “their thing.” I’m afraid that they may have some hidden talent that goes unexpressed. For example, what if Fiona is really a star tennis player, but we never find that out because I didn’t let her take lessons?

(2) I want them to spend time doing what they love. If Molly is DYING to take ceramics again, who am I to stand in her way?

(3) I want them to get into college, and I’m afraid that if they spend their afternoons making fairy houses under a bush, they won’t be able to play a sport in high school—and then they won’t get the college of their choice.

Notice that two of these three reasons are based on fear—an irrational fear that my children might not be “successful” if I don’t fill their days with enriching activities. Embedded in that fear is a very faulty assumption that perhaps they won’t find happiness or meaning in their lives if they don’t follow in my Ivy League, over-achieving footsteps.

And yet the rational sociologist in me is totally convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a narrow focus on achievement does not make for fulfilling and happy lives.

Even if I was a Tiger Mother and really believed in structuring my kids’ every movement, there is absolutely no evidence that highly scheduled kids are more academically successful than kids who just come home after school and play, according to economists Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) and Roland Fryer. So parents who shuttle their kids from athletic practice to music lessons to chess class, and are off to the museum on the weekends, might be having fun or they might be making themselves crazy—but they aren’t improving their children’s academic success.

Let me explain. Levitt and Fryer analyzed data from a survey by the U.S. government that tracks kids from birth through grade school. And they found that the number of activities that kids do has no effect whatsoever on their academic success.

Here are some things that do increase the odds that our children will lead joyful, meaningful, and, yes, successful lives:

1. Social and emotional literacy—particularly around complex emotions like compassion. Playing with friends in unstructured activities is a great way to develop this sort of social intelligence because it requires problem solving and negotiating complex social situations.

2. Time with friends and family. Especially at dinnertime.

3. Mastery and flow. This is different from achievement, at least in the way that I’m talking about it here. Mastery is the joy that comes from the process of working at something and getting better at it, rather than just from winning the game or getting an A+.

4. Our sanity and happiness as parents. Always being on-the-go stresses me out, which makes me less patient, which makes me feel guilty for yelling, which makes…you get the picture.

Clearly, knowing this doesn’t allay all my fears—I can’t say I’m not still tempted to sign the kids up for yet another activity that seems extra-enriching. But it’s enough to help me walk back from the over-scheduling cliff yet again and keep my family to a more sane schedule. There will be no activities that interrupt dinnertime, and I’ll try to help my kids carve out time for unscheduled play every single day. (This means that sometimes after-school care is better than a so-called enriching activity.) We’ll stick with piano lessons, and build in ample time for practice. And we’ll make time for playdates on the weekends.

Happy back-to-school, everyone! Good luck getting back into some happy rhythms this school year.


© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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