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Busy, but at what cost?
Kids can sag under stress
Kids Calendar Ill 2 es
Experts encourage parents not to fill their children's calendars with too many - or too few - activities. - photo by Emily Saunders
Soccer practice, piano lessons and ballet class can add a well-rounded balance to a child’s week.

But throw in flute recitals, math club, Tae Kwon Do and out of town basketball games, and that child could risk overdoing it.

While there’s no standard number of activities per week or hours per day a child should spend in extracurricular activities, experts say there are ways to determine if a child is doing too much -- or not enough -- and how both can be corrected.

“They are tired, they fall asleep during class. A lot of them just don’t get enough rest,” said pediatrician Ken Carter. “Some can get depressed or get down because they’re trying to achieve and push too much.

“We have a lot of kids that have so many activities, they don’t get home until 8 to 10 at night, and then they still have homework. You have to be reasonable and rational in your approach.”

Particularly in affluent areas like Forsyth County, said Carter, there are more “kids that are trying to do too much and parents that are pushing them. We’ve become a very goal-oriented society.”

Exposing a child to a variety of activities can foster a competitive edge when it comes time to apply for college and choose a career. But if their grades slip as a result of tackling too much, the cost may not be worth the benefit, said licensed psychologist Barry Klein.

“You have to look at the point of diminishing returns and you have to know your own child, when enough is too much,” he said. “School is their first priority.”

The most common emotional symptom of taking on too much is stress. Not just on the child, Klein said, but the entire family.

“What happens is they can’t keep up with school and they begin to fall behind,” he said, adding that can "have an impact on self-esteem.”

“But if it’s a positive experience, you enjoy doing it and you’re successful at it, it’s going to make you feel good about yourself.”

In younger children, extracurricular activities tend to gear more toward sports, music and the arts. For older students, the focus can shift to spending too much time at work, Klein said.

While too much activity can be harmful, not enough activity can be an even greater problem, particularly in the age of technology.

Klein said being online, playing video games, as well as the old standby of television, can be addicting. Technology-based activities also facilitate physical inactivity.

“They are most addictive to children who have the poorest social skills,” he said. “If you allowed them, they would spend all their time on their computers ... it becomes a way of coping that becomes maladaptive.

“It takes over your life. That becomes the focus of your life, and you do that to the exclusion of other things.”

Klein said he has patients that admit while they have “a ton of friends,” they only talk to those friends online.

He also said, particularly with teenagers, text messaging has become a way of life. Parents have had to use physical force to pry cell phones from their children.

Keeping in touch with friends is one thing, but text messaging, social Web sites and interactive video games prevent face-to-face interactions with other people, Klein said.

While it’s unlikely for parents to completely ban technology at home, Klein recommends as little of it as possible.

“The solution is for parents to start early and set limits in their children’s use of [technology]” he said. “In other words, from the very beginning, parents need to take charge.

“Activities, the telephone, computers ... it’s the parents’ responsibility to make sure that children engage in these activities in moderation and not to excess.”

Carter noted that many children who don’t engage in some type of physical activity fall victim to obesity, which can lead to other serious health issues like diabetes and heart disease.

There’s also a happy medium between doing nothing and packing a calendar full of events.

Carter recommends adding on one activity at a time, while making sure the child’s academic achievement doesn’t falter as a result.

“Parents need to sit down and just prioritize and work with their kids to make sure they’re not overstressing them,” he said. “I think it’s better if they pick a few things that they are good at.

“You just have to individualize it for each child and keep in mind what their academic achievement is.”