Parent Question: Our son is involved in a number of extracurricular activities. He is on a travel soccer team, plays violin, works on the school newspaper, and participates in a church teen program. We’ve noticed a decline in his attention to homework and studying and worry that he may be overextended. Is he doing too much?
John Curry: Generally, it’s a positive sign when adolescents are involved in activities such as sports, music, and religious youth groups. However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. There has been increased interest in the topic of overscheduling young people at the cost of unstructured, enjoyable time.
Whether your son is overextended is hard to determine from the list of activities you’ve provided. Ask your son how he feels about his schoolwork and extracurricular activities. Is he having trouble fitting everything in over the course of a week? Is he getting restful sleep? Has he noticed a decline in his attention span while doing his homework?
A second approach is to count the hours his activities require during a typical week. For instance, how much time does the travel soccer team take up? How many hours does he practice violin?
If his time commitments seem excessive, advise him that his future does not depend on maintaining all of these activities. College admissions committees are more impressed by consistent involvement and commitment to one or two activities than by occasional involvement in a large number of them. Also, since some activities are seasonal, they do not need to be maintained simultaneously. Advise your son to put some activities on the back burner when others are in their most demanding time period.
James R. Delisle: Your concern may or may not be a problem. Perhaps your son studies efficiently or manages his time so as to complete his homework at school. If so, don’t worry and leave the responsibility of scheduling to him. He will learn valuable time management and goal-setting skills.
On the other hand, if your son seems frazzled, it may be time to help him refocus. Half-finished schoolwork, homework that doesn’t make it home, and neglected responsibilities can be signs that your son is doing too much. Even if he cries, “I like them all!” step in and help him determine the cost-benefit of each activity. For example, if he enjoys soccer but finds that the travel schedule takes up an extra six hours a week, perhaps he can get on a team that doesn’t require such a time commitment. If your son feels frustrated and thinks that he isn’t doing well in any of his activities, it’s time to cut back. Initially, he may be resentful, but he will be thankful when his success in the remaining activities grows.
Lastly, help your son determine the level of school success to expect. Straight As are hard to attain if he spends a lot of time on nonacademic activities. Is participating in social and athletic activities worth the cost of lower grades? Is something less than perfection acceptable? This is a trade-off that you and your son need to work out.
Praise your son for pursuing his passions and interests. This support will make you an ally in his march toward lifelong learning.
John Curry, PhD, is associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at Duke University.
James R. Delisle, PhD, is professor of special education at Kent State University.