Remember the days when you’d ride your bike home from school, play soccer in the streets with the neighbourhood kids and get up to all sorts of mischief, going home only to eat?
How times have changed. Today’s middle class and affluent children are already on the treadmill of hectic, high-performance lifestyles.
Children in primary school can be busy up to 11 hours a day and many do extracurricular activities seven days a week. Their schedules are packed by parents who want to give their children every advantage in this competitive world.
Besides sports and cultural activities, children often get private tutoring or coaching, too, or therapy to address remedial issues.
Phillipa’s eight-year-old son is typical. “My son loves soccer and to be the best he can be, he has to play club soccer because they get a much better level of training and that ensures he makes the first team,” she says. “But he’s already balancing his time between swimming, rugby, Kumon (extra maths and English) and jazz band, many of them extracurricular.”
Extramural activities may be highly beneficial, but some parents sign their kids up for too many of them – trying to “optimise” them to the limit – or when they are not yet developmentally ready. Children as young as four are playing team sports, learning a musical instrument or being tutored.
So much is squeezed into a rushed and demanding day that they are left with little or no time for simple, unstructured play.
They may be gaining a competitive edge, but at the sacrifice of their wellbeing. They are stressed.
The get-ahead approach is impacting heavily on the quality of their childhood.
It is happening with teenagers, too. Recently Simon Curtis, deputy headmaster of The Ridge, a private school in Joburg, wrote to parents to urge them to monitor and limit their children’s extramural activities.
He told them that “some of our senior cricket team... stated that they had sport commitments seven days a week, ranging from swimming, waterpolo, soccer, cricket, rugby – practices and matches – and additional private coaching”.
“Teachers are seeing boys exhausted in class,” he wrote. “Some boys aren’t maintaining their academic standards or managing their academic homework, citing sports as their excuse.”
Stress from overloaded schedules is compounded by the disjointed family life many children experience today. Parents are often not home and children are raised by nannies and au pairs. When they do see their parents, children are often keenly aware of their anxieties – whether from the tough economic situation, crime, broken marriages or stressful workloads.
Hugo Meirim, a psychologist at St John’s College Preparatory School in Joburg, advises parents to have a more holistic approach and focus on building the basics.
“The basic developmental building block in relationships becomes destabilised when children are not getting a chance to build trust,” he says. “Life’s a rush, and time constraints affect the ability to interact and connect.”
Meirim warns that stress doesn’t always play out in the area where the problem lies. “It can be transferred to another area in their lives.”
Communication is vital, Meirim says. Use lift scheme time to talk to your children, not to catch up on phone calls. Make them feel you’re present for them.
“If your son says he’s not coping, or doesn’t have time for homework or playing, take it very seriously. Get the opinion of his teachers, coaches and au pairs and, if need be, seek professional advice.”
Another reason to hold back on overloading your child’s schedule is their age. It can be dangerous to expose a child who isn’t emotionally mature enough to handle competition to team sports.
They’re not equipped with the resources to handle losing or the pressure, and the game becomes about performance instead of being about fun and participating.
Performance stress can backfire.
“Kids may hang back and not fully engage, for fear of failure,” says Meirim. “If they’re pushed too hard and do too much in their foundation years, they can experience burnout for those activities by the age of 10 or 11.”
But careful parents who hold their kids back until they’re older run the risk that they’ll be behind their peers who have received the skills training and experience from an early age.
One mother, Susan, told me: “My son didn’t play club soccer, he’s now nine and refuses to play because he’s aware that he’s behind his peers.”
Paediatric rheumatologist Dr Gail Faller doesn’t buy this.
“Children of five can take a week to learn what children of 13 or 14 can learn in an hour. They catch up quickly and if they come to a sport or another extracurricular activity at 13 or 14, it is out of their own love and passion for it. That’s the greatest driver for motivation, longevity and fun in that arena and parents will find they don’t have to push or nag the child at all. Then their activity will refresh and energise them.”
Faller strongly believes that children are doing too many competitive sports and not giving their bodies enough recovery time.
“Children’s bodies aren’t built for extreme levels of physical strain. They’re growing and you can cause injuries early on.
“Playing sports with an untreated injury can cause long-term damage to the growing joint or create scar tissue in a muscle. Many parents dismiss pain as growing pains and risk missing a sports injury like a ligament or minor muscle tear. Growing pains aren’t common and happen only at night.”
In his letter to parents, Curtis also noted: “We’re seeing quite a number of injuries in our boys, enough to be concerned that the overall involvement in physical activities is leading boys not only to be stressed, fatigued and struggling with balance, but that they’re developing strains and injuries that should not be affecting young boys.”
It’s a worldwide phenomenon.
In a recent report, the American Academy of Pediatrics said: “Many children are participating in sports year round and sometimes on multiple teams simultaneously. This overtraining can lead to burnout, which may have a detrimental effect on a child participating in sports as a lifelong healthy activity. A contributing factor to overtraining may be parental pressure to compete to succeed.”
The solution to today’s overstressed, overloaded children seems deceptively simple.
“Play is what children need to reduce stress,” says Faller, “good old-fashioned play in an unstructured environment, with no agenda and with friends.”
That’s all good, but who will your children play with if all their friends are busy with extra sports and cultural activities?
It’s a conundrum. All parents want their kids to be successful, but they also want them to be happy and well-adjusted.
BUSY MORNING TO NIGHT – AND HE’S ONLY 8
James* is eight and in Grade Three. His typical Tuesday begins at 6.15am. He does 15 minutes of a home physio programme before breakfast because his parents were told core and upper body strength training would help his posture, sports, and pencil grip.
School ends at 2.15pm and he heads straight to cricket practice until 3.30pm. Lunch is in the car so he can be at swimming training by 4pm, which is an hour of drills, fitness and strength training. He has a rotator cuff injury in his shoulder which means he is swimming with pain.
Homework and dinner are a rush as he has a provincial chess lesson at 6pm, getting home between 7.30pm and 8pm.
Chess coaching is also on a Sunday and tournaments are all day on a weekend.
Granted Tuesday is an extra-long day for him, but even so James’s parents can see he’s taking strain.
He used to love all his activities, but now he seems tired and moody and he can’t fall asleep easily. Having always been an excellent pupil, he no longer wants to do homework.
“I just wish I could play with my friends more, but we’re all busy,” says James.
* Real name not used
REVISE YOUR CHILD’S SCHEDULE IF:
l They develop a reluctance to engage in their activities.
l You see any changes in behaviour and a change of personality.
l They show signs of being withdrawn, they act out, become aggressive and defiant.
l They battle to fall asleep, have changes in sleep patterns or wake during the night.
l They change their eating patterns.
l They suddenly have problems with peers (and never used to).
l They have fluctuating moods and change their attitude towards school, activities or relationships in the home.
l They show any signs of heightened anxiety.
l They have newly developed and continual complaints like stomach and headaches.
Assess your child’s schedule throughout the year – like adults they get burnt out and more tired towards the end of the year.
IN SEARCH OF BALANCE
l Make sure your child gets downtime in his day.
l Vegging in front of the TV or playing adrenalin-producing electronic games is not ideal.
l Unstructured playtime is the best de-stressor – with a friend, parent, sibling or even domestic helper.
l Kids should also be able to play alone.
l Include half an hour of calm time before bed. Hang out together, talk and relax.
l Nurture a love of learning by leaving enough relaxed time for homework.
l Young kids need about 10 hours of sleep a night.
l Avoid junk foods, stick to fresh foods, a low glycaemic index (GI ) diet and give children supplements like vitamins and omega oils.