Finding Balance

The last section of this document about building children's self-esteem is about preserving the balance between what children need to accomplish and what they might like to accomplish, or what might be good for them to accomplish. Sometimes children will take on too many involvements and commitments and end up getting overwhelmed. This can happen when parents push children into too many commitments out of a well meaning but ultimately harmful desire to better them. It can also happen without parental prompting when children themselves overestimate their capacities and take on too many activities because everything (involvement in sports teams, school clubs, music and art lessons, church and community activities and spending time with friends and family) looks good to them. At the end of the day then, the task for parents becomes one of helping children to benefit from multiple involvements while not becoming overtaxed and overwhelmed in the process.

Parents need to make sure that their children's schedule allows basic needs to be met. Children must have protected time during which they can get adequate sleep and exercise, attend school and complete school assignments (including homework), spend some quality time with their family, complete a few household chores, and have a little spontaneous and unplanned play and leisure time for "hanging out" alone or with friends. Children are not little adults; they do not benefit from having every minute of every day planned out for them in advance. Structure is important for guiding children and keeping them engaged in healthy activities, but too much structure is a bad thing. Children need some time every day without structure; time and space to freely play, imagine, think, and explore. Kids who have too much structure imposed upon them tend to become resentful of all their planned activities and act out or become withdrawn.

Once parents figure out how much protected time their children need for their basic activities, they can then decide how children might best use the remaining time in the most meaningful way. Parents should first look at what activities specifically interest their children: sports and athletics, art and music, academic interests such as science and math, religious activities, or other clubs and organizations. It's alright to encourage children to create variety in their activities. Often, parents will need to set limits on the financial cost of activities or on the amount of time necessary for parents to transport or to coordinate their children's activities. However, within those limits, in large part, children should be able to determine what they will spend their time doing. They should not be pushed into doing gymnastics or playing a musical instrument just because their parents did, or their siblings are doing so.

Parents need to know how and when to say "No" to new activities when taking on those activities is not in children's best interests. As well, parents also need to watch for signs that a child's current activity load may have become overwhelming and help children reduce their involvement in such activities when they have become problematic. To do this, parents need to pay careful attention to children's signs of stress. If children are having new, frequent "meltdowns," such as crying, acting out, or otherwise being grouchy during activities or activity transitions, this could be a sign they're doing too much. Furthermore, if students are starting to neglect their school work, chores, or other responsibilities, this may be a sign they have too much to do. If children are falling asleep during the day, have trouble sleeping at night, or are having new stomachaches or headaches, these could also be symptoms that they're feeling overwhelmed with all of their commitments. Finally, if children repeatedly ask to stop going to a certain group or doing a certain activity in order to do something else instead, this could mean they are doing too much, or that their preferences are changing.

Parents who notice such signs of stress should check their child's schedule of involvements and commitments to see whether he or she has enough protected time to adequately play, rest and study without being forced to participate in a structured activity. If adjustments are made so that children have more protected time, and children still showing signs of stress, parents may need to insist that children discontinue one or more activities in order to preserve their overall health and to increase the enjoyment and benefit they gain from other remaining activities.