Putting the Brakes on Sports

Andrea Grazzini Walstrom
December 19, 2005


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I like slow days. And, so I notice, do my kids. Days when I have time to sneak over to the couch with a magazine. My four-year-old might be constructing a Lego tower nearby. My six-year-old is likely cranking out endless pages of illustrated prose. On the best days we'll get in a long walk. Or they'll turn on the Beach Boys and dance, and maybe I'll join them.

It occurred to me when my daughter started kindergarten in the fall of 2004 that these halcyon days were numbered. She was standing at the threshold of modern-day middle-class childhood. I might as well have bought her a PDA along with her crayon box, because from everything I heard, her life would soon be filled with soccer, Girl Scouts, karate and KinderMusic or some other all-consuming mix of enriching activities.

Like many parents, my first reaction was to sign her up. After all, I needed to get her started early to keep her competitive with other children—and (the time would fly, I knew) get her into a good college—something the Beach Boys can't offer. But I hesitated when frazzled parents warned me that to sign her up was to sign away our family life to scheduled activities that would consume our dinner hours, go on until after bedtime, continue during holiday breaks—with no respite until she graduated from high school.

For her part, my daughter thought all these activities sounded exciting, but she wasn't clamoring for any of them.

E-Mailing the Expert

So I put off signing her up and emailed William J. Doherty, PhD—a national expert on overscheduled kids, who with Barbara J. Carlson co-founded Putting Family First (and co-authored a book by the same name), a Wayzata, Minnesota group tackling the issue of overscheduled kids and under-connected families.

Doherty is quick to quantify the perils of overscheduled childhoods: Children have lost 12 hours—nearly one full waking day—of free time per week in the past two decades. Kids' participation in organized sports has doubled in the same period, and 41% of parents say their kids' busy schedules make parenting more difficult.

I thought if I did something in my community, maybe by the time my daughter became really interested in activities, she'd have more reasonable choices.

I wasn't the only one who recognized the problem—and the need for a solution. I met with leaders from our school district (District 196, which serves 28,000 students in the Twin Cities' southern suburbs) and other community organizations. They confirmed that students in our area were running ragged—and some were showing signs of exhaustion, depression and burnout. Soon nine other parents, inspired by a discussion with Doherty, joined me to create Balance4Success. Our name articulated our mission: to replace busyness with balance to insure kids' success.

The Scramble for Success

For many of us middle class parents, success ranks with (sometimes outranks) health and safety issues, happiness and values as a top priority for our kids. Perhaps we feel that the fundamentals are assured in our seemingly stable community and therefore we have the luxury of looking for more. Many believe that participation in organized activities, the more the better, equals success for kids.

Doug Baird, a Balance4Success leader and the on-site police officer at a large local high school, says that while the school has no problem getting huge crowds of parents for college entrance presentations, getting these parents out for a talk on the school's methamphetamine problem can be like pulling teeth. Hans Skulstad, a local family therapist, says he is increasingly seeing depression among youth athletes whose parents have always assumed they were thriving playing year-round sports. Faith groups juggle worship schedules to accommodate Sunday morning sports schedules.

Balance4Success figured if we could tap into parents' yearning for their kids' success, we might get some attention. According to Doherty's research, children who are home enough to eat regularly with their family do better academically, physically and emotionally. They are less likely to be obese, have sex, use drugs and engage in other self-destructive behaviors. This, we felt, was an aspect of success that wasn't being considered in the vision of achieving success by way of a full slate of organized activities.

"Not In Our House"

Balance4Success's first public effort was to survey a cross-section of local parents. Of approximately 30 respondents, only one said she didn't think over-scheduling was a problem in our area. Many others saw it as a problem for friends and neighbors, but not themselves.

Nearly all said something needed to be done. But many were skeptical that anything could change given the zeal of the community for kids' sports and the amount of collective energy focused on kids' achievement.

Such responses made us rethink our strategy. We had started out inclined to address the issue with a friendly educational campaign defining the problem and providing tips on how to address it. But, Doherty told us, we wouldn't get far without something "edgier." He had seen other parent groups make progress elevating awareness of the issues. But none had been able to create widespread, lasting change.

Many parents had made clear to us that while arts activities, homework and faith participation can monopolize kids' schedules, youth athletics has the biggest impact. The four main youth sports associations in our community boast registrations upwards of 10,000 each (some kids play multiple sports). Some traveling teams for children of middle-school age have as many as 100 games and practices per season—including many on weekends.

So, we decided to launch our campaign with Taking Back Sunday, a boycott of organized youth sports on Sundays. We announced our plan at a large community meeting this past October. The reaction affirmed our strategy: Many parents expressed relief that they weren't alone in wanting to keep at least one day free of the demands of scheduled activities. The boycott format meant parents who had hesitated to pull their kids out of a game or practice for fear their child would be penalized could, empowered by the sheer number of families participating, be bolder with coaches (and their kids).

People sent notes of support and approval. Many local (and a handful of national) press covered our bold announcement. Our community was abuzz. One email read, "From my retired previous neighbor, to my hair stylist, to patients at our dental office; they are all talking about your initiative." And more parents joined the Balance4Success team, doubling our size to 20, many in professions that serve kids: a principal, a cop, a child psychologist, teachers, and stay-at-home moms.

Going Too Far?

A few people questioned why we were focusing on a "good problem:" kids too busy to watch TV or surf the Internet all day; too booked up to get in trouble—the privileged recipients of the documented benefits of sports. Though educators, who see burnt out kids daily, have typically been supportive, one principal cautioned us not to misguide parents into reducing kids' participation.

Others were convinced we had a religious agenda because of our choice of Sunday as a day off. And some accused us of being anti-sports.

A Less-Stressed Future

In fact, we were following the lead of the Minnesota State High School league which prohibits play on Sunday, and of a majority of NCAA teams that also take Sunday off. Nearly every Balance4Success leader is a former athlete; some are coaches; several have kids on traveling teams.

But we believe clearing kids' schedules for one day a week can help them thrive. Diane Wiese-Bjornstal, who teaches kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, says increasing numbers of her students would rather not play organized sports anymore. Their burnout, she says, represents "the culmination of years of laboring in athletics without respite from the associated pressures and expectations and fatigue."

This is not what we want for the kids of our community.

Taking Back Sunday takes effect June 1st, 2006. It will be only the first of our initiatives to help our community replace busyness with balance in the lives of our kids.

In the meantime, I know the carefree days of early childhood will give way to more complexity for my family. But I want to preserve some time on our calendar to "do nothing" together. And I, along with Balance4Success, want to support the many other parents who want the same—to insure all of our kids' success.

Andrea Grazzini Walstrom is a freelance writer in Burnsville, Minnesota.

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Comments

I came to this story orginally because someone from my faculty, Diane Wiese-Bjornstal, was quoted, but I have to respond as a parent of a son, now 19. I actively resisted scheduling him after sticking just a couple toes in the water.

We enrolled him in baseball and soccer at about six or seven. He hated baseball (lasted three games) and played soccer for just one park-board season. We were told by other parents that we were making a mistake letting him "drop out" and that he needed to learn to work with a team. Strangely, year after year, without team sports, his teachers praised him for his ability to work well in groups and to be both a team player and leader.

We also tried Cub Scouts for one year, but when it moved from a once-a-month to once-a-week commitment, we dropped it.
He was an excellent student throughout school, had many friends, participated in band, took private trumpet lessons once a week, and had a great deal of "down time." Yes, he played video games and watched a lot of movies. But he also read, talked to his parents, and sat for hours drawing pictures.

When it was time to schedule confirmation classes, he was the only kid in the room who didn&;t pull out a PDA or datebook to figure out what small windows of free time could be found.

Today he is a successful sophomore at an excellent university, has many outside interests, is holding down a good part-time job, and has a close circle of good friends and a girl friend.

This is one anecdote, I know, but my family never bogged down in frantic scheduling, my son is very close to both his parents, and is happily preparing for a successful life -- all without sports, Boy Scouts, expensive summer camps, or even AP classes. Those are all great activities, but they aren&;t required--they should be pursued only if they bring joy and genuine growth--and they should only be pursued in balance with family time and good old "down time."