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by Dr. Nicole Murphy

What is best for my child?  This question must run through every parent's head a million times a day.  Are they spending too much time with screens? Are they doing enough activities to look good for college applications? To keep them occupied and happy? Are they too busy?  There are plenty of people who will offer well-meaning advice if you ask, but the most important thing is what’s best for you and your family. You’ll find that the answers may be different from case to case, so we’ve compiled some information to help you navigate these questions and make informed decisions that best benefit your family.

The first thing to realize is that even though kids seem to be overflowing with energy, they still need a good amount of sleep and recovery time from activities. The Sleep Foundation recommends 9 to 11 hours of sleep per night for school-aged children (those between the ages of 6 and 17). Plain old down time--time when nothing is scheduled--is important too. Allowing children to relax and choose how to spend their  time fosters creativity and helps keep their stress low. All of the activities that kids participate in can add up and cause physical and emotional stress, particularly if they are cramming too much into a day.  These stressors add up and do the same things that they do to an adult body: accelerating stress-related diseases like high blood pressure, cholesterol, and burnout.

That brings us to the biggest question: how much is too much? Depending on the research and its focus, you may find different answers. The one thing that most studies agree on is that non-school activities are healthy, and good for brain/social development...in moderation.  Participation of up to 10 hours a week, whether it be a sport or a non-physical activity like theatre or chess club, is generally positive. Once the time increases to over 20 hours a week, a child can start to feel overwhelmed with activities, showing signs of burnout. Some signs that your child might be overscheduled include poor health or fatigue, a lack of joy, slipping grades, and decreased time spent with friends. If you consider your child’s schedule and find that they have more than 20 hours of activities on top of school, or if they show one or more of the above symptoms, sit down and talk to them about how they feel.  Are they tired often? Do they feel overwhelmed? Are they actually enjoying all of the activities they are doing or are they doing them out of a feeling of obligation?  If so, work together to determine which extracurriculars should stay and which are causing more stress than they are worth.

On the other hand, kids that don’t participate in any extracurriculars may not get enough movement, or end up spending too much time in front of a screen--whether it be a television, computer, or smartphone. Humans need lots of motion throughout the day to keep our bodies and minds healthy.  The key to giving a child free time is making sure that free time isn’t filled with screen time. That being said, it’s okay not to give them anything specific to do, either.  It’s actually good to let your kid get bored.  We want children to be able to use their imagination and not look to adults for what to do next.  If there is too much regiment in their life, they don’t get an opportunity to exercise their creativity, and they lose the ability to entertain themselves or find joy in relaxing. I see way too many adults who are at this point. It is much easier to foster a skill for relaxation in children than to try to teach an adult to “chill”.

So as we start the last quarter of 2017, look at the life you are demonstrating to your children.  Is it overwhelming and always busy, or are you fostering a healthy balance in their lives? Take this opportunity to examine, and, if necessary, make changes to move forward into a happier and more fulfilling 2018--for you and your children.

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