Running Ragged

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m getting a little worried that we’re putting too much pressure on my son to get involved in extracurricular activities. He plays soccer, is active in his Boy Scout troop, and does karate. Now there’s talk about art classes during the week, too. I know that extracurricular activities are good, but how much is too much?

A: Yep, you’re right: extracurricular activities are great for your son. They show him that there is life outside of academics, and they can teach some very valuable life lessons. Boy Scouts and soccer can help your son learn to interact better with others and what teamwork is all about. Karate is great, too. In the right dojo, he’ll learn about respect and the importance of hard work and patience (martial arts should be a meritocracy). Karate is also be great for conditioning and can even boost self-esteem.

That said, adding yet another activity to an already-packed schedule could be a real problem. In fact, you might already have overloaded your son’s plate. So how can you tell whether he’s got too much going on? Well, unfortunately, there’s no hard formula—the number of activities isn’t nearly as important as the effect those activities are having on your son’s life (and on the rest of the family).
Here are some signs that your son might be suffering from extracurricular overload:

A Drop in Grades. This is one of the easiest ways to tell how well he’s handling everything he has to do. If his grades start dropping (on a regular basis, not just a one-time bad grade on a test), you can be pretty sure that he needs to spend more time studying and less time dashing from activity to activity.

Irritability. If your normally easy-going son suddenly starts snapping at everyone about what seems like nothing, then there’s something going on. Hey, if you had to score goals, earn merit badges, learn complicated karate kata (forms), and keep your grades up, you’d probably be doing more than a little snapping of your own. That is a ton of pressure—and that’s before adding the extra stress of trying to become the next Picasso. Think about reducing some activities instead of adding new ones.

Fatigue. Does your son seem to be staggering through his day all bleary eyed? Does he nod off over dinner? Does he always seem to be drinking Monster or Red Bull? On average, a 13-year old needs 9-10 hours of sleep every night—that’s more than a pre-teen needs. But research shows that most teens actually get less sleep than younger kids. The effects of inadequate sleep are pretty shocking: impaired brain function and memory, decreased ability to concentrate, and poor immune system performance (meaning he’ll get sick more often and will take longer to recover). The good news is that all these effects are reversible. All your son has to do is get more sleep. And that probably means giving up an after-school activity or two.

One often-overlooked technique for assessing activity overload is to just come right out and ask you son how he’s feeling. Does he really enjoy schlepping from one activity to another, or is he doing it to make you happy or because it’s what he thinks you expect from him?

No matter how you slice it, you, your spouse, and your son are going to have to sit down and talk about a schedule. The two key elements are that he needs to be enjoying every activity he’s doing, and he needs to be getting enough rest.

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