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Extracurricular Overload

As NYC families, most of us are intimately familiar with the wealth of opportunity that is available for our children here in the city. By five years old, many children have been exposed to the finest art, music, theater, museums. Even our children's palates have experienced more than many children growing up in other parts of the country - sushi, lox, exotic cuisine from around the world, all are accessible and at least part of our children's vocabulary, if not exactly to their taste. Because we live in a city that truly has the finest of everything, it's sometimes difficult to decide what, as well as how many of the various activities, classes and experiences are appropriate for our children.

Should we enroll our children in music school, art classes, theater programs? Wouldn't karate help them learn self-defense? What about having them audition to be in professional ballet programs or would it be better to give them a more diverse dance background? And don't forget about sports! We've heard that when boys or girls are part of a team, they learn cooperation and team work. Maybe we should also pursue soccer, little league, basketball. Then there's private piano lessons. After all, shouldn't everyone know how to play the piano? Don't forget swimming...every child needs to learn how to swim, if only for safety's sake during summer vacations! The list is endless.

Most parents want the best for their children, and with the best of intentions, many times end up signing their children up for a full load of extracurricular activities. But when does a good thing turn into too much of a good thing? How much is too much for a child of five years, or ten, or fifteen years?

The answer is not an easy one, because every child is different. An extracurricular load which might be just right for one child might be disastrous for another. Your child's age, temperament, interests, and activity level must be considered when choosing appropriate classes or activities. Keep in mind, however, that no matter what your child's age, ANY child can fall victim to extracurricular overload. In your zest to give your children the best of New York, don't fail to recognize the warning signs which may indicate burnout. Catching this early can help prevent it from worsening, and leaving you with an unhappy, stressed, fatigued child whose schoolwork, social life, and home life suffer. To determine if your child has fallen victim to extracurricular overload, ask yourself the following questions:

* Does your child seem fatigued, irritable, or lacking in energy on a particular day of the week?

* Does your child complain about headaches, stomachaches, sore throat or other physical ailments regularly? Is there a pattern to his complaints?

* Does your child cry easily when she's not being actively distracted?

* Is your child unusually aggressive on a particular day of the week?

* Has your child ever mentioned not wanting to be involved in a particular activity for which he's signed up?

If you answered "yes" to any or all of these, especially if a pattern of behavior has emerged (ie your child only complains about going to school or feeling ill on a particular day of the week when an extracurricular activity is scheduled) then it's possible your child is experiencing extracurricular overload.

As parents, it's important to pay attention to these early warning signs. Sit down with your child and encourage open discussion about his or her lessons. Adopt a non-judgmental attitude so that your child isn't afraid to tell you if something is wrong. When a child feels as though you'll be angry, he's not likely to be honest with you. Likewise, many children hide their true feelings in an effort to please their parents. Some children may just not be cut out to be a ballet dancer or soccer player, but because they sense that Mom or Dad wants them to do this, they won't speak up on their own behalf. This hesitancy contributes to the stress they may already be feeling from having too many scheduled activities each week.

But what happens when the shoe is on the other foot? When it's our children who want to do more, and we feel that they're doing too much already? The answer lies in again creating an atmosphere which encourages open communication - in other words, setting aside time to speak to your child about the activities she wants to be involved in rather than making decisions "on the fly." When you're discussing adding more to her schedule, be clear about your expectations. For example, tell her that you expect her homework to get done nightly by a certain time and her chores to be done routinely if she's going to add more to her extracurricular activities. Likewise, it's important to spell out what will happen if her grades start to slip or chores aren't completed on time. Maybe you'll decide that her extracurricular activities will be curtailed for a specific length of time if this happens, or that the chores will all have to be done on the weekend. Many parents find it helpful to put this "agreement" in writing, having both parent and child sign it so that there's no "confusion" in the future about what the details of your agreement were. And make sure that even if you're discussing what will happen if things don't work out, express confidence to your child that you believe she can handle it. Otherwise, you might unintentionally set your child up to fail, rather than to succeed.

Finally, all this is not to say that if your child suddenly expresses dislike or boredom for a particular activity in the middle of a session that you've paid for, you have to pull her out immediately and lose your tuition. At the same time that we pay attention to the signs of true burnout in our children, we must balance our decisions with the knowledge that it's also important for them to learn about commitment. Finishing out a few weeks or even a month or two of a particular activity is not likely to permanently damage your child. Just consider it a lesson learned, have her finish the session, and do things differently the next time.