Why extracurriculars make parents miserable

There are oh-so-many studies and expert opinions evaluating the ways our parenting choices affect our kids and oh-so-few considering how we grown-ups will fare. Read enough of them, and you’ll be misled to believe that parents are fixed entities with little capacity to feel or grow.

This is particularly the case when it comes to time management. We’re told that children need lots of unstructured time, and it’s up to us to cultivate it. But we’re also told that children need to be challenged and inspired, and it’s up to us to arrange it. So off we go to karate and violin and religious school and soccer and dance, while making sure there is enough time in there for wandering in the woods or building a treehouse, or whatever else passes for low-pressure character-building these days.

As a parent of a 5- and a 1-year-old, I’m fairly new to the scheduling trenches. And yet a small voice has emerged, a faint chant from the back of my brain, repeating: Where do my needs fit into all this?

How do I want to spend my weekends and evenings? What if watching children play sports or struggle through a music lesson isn’t my idea of a good time?

I worry that these thoughts mean I am selfish. Then, I worry about who I will become if I see such thoughts as selfish.

In KJ Dell’Antonia’s new book “How to Be a Happier Parent,” she encourages parents to listen to this voice. Good parenting isn’t about creating only well-rounded, emotionally well-adjusted children, she argues, but well-rounded, emotionally well-adjusted parents. The time was when such advice would be obvious and redundant. But in today’s super-parenting culture, it’s both counterintuitive and redemptive.

“School is a non-negotiable. But the hours afterward, which so quickly get populated with parties and sports and music, that’s a story that’s mine [as a parent] to write, too,” Dell’Antonia said.

“I notice a sense of inevitability among parents, as if the gravitational pull of a jam-packed schedule is so strong. They’re thinking about what works for the kids, but they also need to think about what works for them.”

Yes, extracurriculars have really gotten out of hand

A few facts from Dell’Antonia’s book: Unsupervised and unstructured playtime has decreased for all children since 1981. Parents spend more time driving children to and from activities and organizing and attending activities than they have in previous generations. Twenty-seven percent of all trips taken in 2012 were for the sole purpose of attending an organized sporting event. And 35% of parents, according to a single survey, say that managing their child’s school and extracurricular transportation arrangements is more stressful than taxes. These changes have been more significant for better-educated parents.

Related, also from Dell’Antonia’s book: Parents today are spending less time with their spouses than they did in the past. Also related: It’s really hard for me to make plans with my parent friends on the weekend.

Still not convinced? The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a report reminding us that “play is not frivolous” and encourages pediatricians to write a ” ‘prescription for play’ at every well-child visit in the first 2 years of life.”

It’s not just the time commitment that has grown. Extracurriculars tend to feel higher stakes today, with the rise of professionalized club sport teams and elaborate dance competitions and music recitals. As a result, children — and, inevitably, their parents — have become more emotionally bound up in these activities, and their performance in them becomes a measure of their self-worth.

“Many of us sense this stuff is different than it was when we were children, and we are actually right. It was not this complicated or intense,” Dell’Antonia said. “It’s different, it’s harder, and it’s designed to suck you in.”

There are a combination of factors behind the extracurricular craze. Some argue that as college admissions have gotten more competitive, parents are more interested in helping their children stand out. Others believe that rising income inequality has well-off parents more concerned with securing their children’s place on top. Research shows that spending on extracurriculars and additional services for children has jumped more for high-income families than for low-income ones since the 1970s.

Combine this with some old-fashioned peer pressure and a growing number of business-owners looking to capitalize on parents’ metastasizing insecurities and fears, and you get extracurricular madness.

Saying ‘no’

The good news? Despite the high-stakes surrounding extracurriculars in our culture, they remain, in fact, optional.

There is no universally correct formula for how many extracurriculars a child needs. Some might thrive with none or close to none, and others might live their best lives when studying Mandarin on the way to violin practice and texting with their lacrosse team about tomorrow’s big game on the way home. Although there is evidence that some extracurricular activities can benefit our children, nobody has discovered that turning them into Renaissance boys and girls who can paint, sing and nail a three-pointer benefits them in the long run. If anything, most research on the subject warns parents about the potential downfalls of limiting children’s free time.

Dell’Antonia encourages us to talk with our children about these commitments and pay attention to any emotional cues that might suggest they are, perhaps unknowingly, anxious and overwhelmed.

But that shouldn’t be the only factor in our decision-making process. “There is also the question of whether [doing and extracurricular] would make [the parent] happier,” Dell’Antonia said. “Your happiness, and your family’s overall happiness, are totally valid concerns.”

She encourages parents to think about this in practical terms. Sure, T-ball practice may only be 45 minutes. But if it takes 25 minutes to motivate and dress your 7-year-old, 15 minutes to get there and another 15 minutes to get home, that hour is actually closer to two.

Then there’s the emotional factor. Parents who report themselves as happy tend to have a hobby or an “extracurricular” of their own. This isn’t just good for their sense of selves, it sets an important example for their children as they face down adulthood.

“One of the joys of being an adult is, you get to make decisions about money and time. If you feel like you can’t do those things because your kids’ activities are keeping you too busy, you need to look at your kids and think: Is this what I want for you in the future?” Dell’Antonia said.

Fewer extracurriculars can improve relationships

In addition to making more time for me to do things like yoga, read books and visit more museums, limiting extracurriculars might benefit my relationships with my children.

As a mother of six, ages 14 to 3, Jordana Horn never dared to aspire to be the kind of mom whose children do a wide range of extracurriculars. “It would be physically impossible to be an Uber driver to six children, doing five extracurriculars a week. That’s madness,” explained Horn, who lives in Short Hills, New Jersey.

But her desire to limit extracurriculars isn’t purely practical. Having a more manageable schedule also gives her a chance to enjoy her children’s company in an expectation-free setting.

“Not only do you get one shot at childhood, you also only get one shot at parenting children,” Horn said. “You shouldn’t spend it stressed out that if you don’t make the next three lights, you aren’t going to get to the arena in time for him to skate.

“You see a difference in your lives and your children’s lives when you are really enjoying each other’s company and not just being the person on hand with the water bottle and Band-Aids.”

Eitan Kensky, a father of a 2-year-old in Mountain View, California, found that his son’s seemingly innocuous soccer class gave him more grief than joy.

“I thought it would just be kicking a ball around and running. He was 18 months! But the parents were weirdly competitive, and it made me more conscious of his difficulties with structured play,” Kensky explained. He and his wife didn’t like the way the class encouraged parents to compare their children with one another and the bad feelings that arose in him when he worried about whether his kid measured up.

“Toddlers develop at their own speed. So we stopped signing up for [these kind of classes], and we both feel much better.”

Parenthood can feel so intense, so all-consuming, that it is easy to forget that we parents are an important part of the family equation. We’d all be happier — parents and children — if we worried a little less about the life we are building and a little more about whether we are building it together.