Chaos Theory: The Overscheduled Life of One Family

American parents are feeling pretty overscheduled these days, with the constant round of sports, parties, lessons, and playdates. Are we crazy busy…or just crazy? Here’s how to know when to stop the madness.

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Photo by Gail Albert Halaban

With four young boys, Ali Macadam has a few coping strategies. For starters, the organization of her kitchen counter, which looks like a low-tech version of mission control. There’s a row of lunch boxes with a note underneath each that outlines what the corresponding child needs for the day: Sunscreen for a field trip? Check. Water bottle? Permission slip? Change of clothes? Check, check, check.



In the afternoon, as soon as Ali picks up her two-year-old, Graham, from day care and gets home, she preps for chauffeur duty as the rest of her brood—Peter, 11, Owen, 9, and Ford, 7—gets home from school. Backpacks are exchanged for shin guards. Peter and Owen play lacrosse; Ford plays soccer. (Peter also has guitar lessons. And Ford has tutoring once a week.) “I try to drive other kids to the practices so my kids can get a ride home,” says Ali. Some days she drops Peter and two of his teammates off at the field 40 minutes early, circling back for Owen and his friend, dropping them off, and heading home to cook dinner, which is served in two shifts: an early one for Ford and Graham, with hot dogs or other kid-friendly fare; and a later one, when Peter, Owen, and her husband, Chris, wolf down their dinner while Ali bathes the younger boys. Nothing slows down on the weekends, when there’s a packed roster of sports matches mixed with birthday parties, family get-togethers, and sleepovers. Chris, a chiropractor, chauffeurs the weekend games.

Ali wishes that she had more time for certain things. Breathing, for one. She is a certified yoga instructor and teaches when she can. And in 2010 she started a business selling compound butters, but “it’s not going to fly this year,” she says. There’s not much energy left over for friendships, which she misses. While Chris spends part of his weekend playing golf with friends, she would rather decompress alone. “By the end of the day, I’m too tired to do a girls’ night,” she says. “Which makes me a little sad.” And date nights? Every couple of months, if she and Chris are lucky.

“I try to take it one day at a time,” says Ali. “It’s great to have a big family.” She is one of 10 kids herself, and a big family is something that she always wanted. “Eventually I’ll look back on these as the best days of my life,” she says. “But some weeks are overwhelming.”


It has come to seem an inevitable part of family life in America in 2012: car pools, piles of sports equipment, packed calendars. “Children’s lives are more structured than they were 40 years ago,” says sociologist Sandra Hofferth, the director of the Maryland Population Research Center, at the University of Maryland, in College Park. When Hofferth was at the University of Michigan, she studied how kids ages 3 to 12 spent their time from the years 1981 to 1997 (hers is the most current large-scale study of its kind) and found that free time had declined by 71⁄2 hours a week, the equivalent of one school day. For kids between the ages of 9 and 12, participation in sports rose 35 percent and participation in the arts rose 145 percent. Hofferth followed up the study in 2003 and found that things had leveled off: Free time was down only another 4 percent. But outdoor free play had decreased a whopping 50 percent, probably because of the increased temptations of technology.

Five years later, Hofferth studied another group of children to evaluate the emotional impact of structured activity, and she expected to find stressed kids. To her surprise, the majority were what she calls “balanced,” even though they were committed to two activities over the two days that she did interviews. These kids were not, by her measure, burned-out. In fact, it was the children with no extra-curriculars whom Hofferth found to be “withdrawn and anxious.”

“Just because a child is hurried doesn’t mean he’s stressed,” says Hofferth. But guess who is stressed? “It’s the parents,” says Hofferth, “because they have to manage it all.” Yes, the people who put the cleats in the duffel bags and make everything possible.

“I have tremendous sympathy for parents these days,” says Tamar Kremer-Sadlik, the director of programs at the Division of Social Sciences and an adjunct assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “Research shows that when parents are involved, a child’s outcome is better, and so they’re doing what they feel is morally responsible.”

In 2010 Kremer-Sadlik coauthored a UCLA study of activities among middle-class children in the United States and Italy. She found that the U.S. families scheduled three activities a week on average; the Italian families averaged 2.5. Kids in both countries favored sports but also participated in music lessons and after-school clubs.

But there was one big difference: The American parents felt more pressure for their kids to participate and succeed in extracurriculars because they deemed it important for their children’s future, says Kremer-Sadlik. (It’s worth noting that in Italy activities usually aren’t directly linked to college acceptance and scholarships.) “American parents feel a weight of responsibility,” she says. “That pressure makes them feel busy even when they have time to relax. There’s a feeling of hurriedness dominating the experience.”

Today even unstructured time is structured. Take the playdate, a term that entered the lexicon in the mid-1980s, probably about the same time that child-safety concerns started to permeate parental consciousness. Now, instead of letting the Beaver run out the back door, a parent schedules and schleps. According to a report on the decline of free play published last year in the American Journal of Play, parents reported that they were reluctant to let their kids roam the neighborhood for fear of traffic, strangers, and bullies.


Even Ali, a relatively laid-back mom, admits that unstructured time doesn’t go very well. “When the kids are just hanging around,” she says, “they start to fight.” Kick them outside and pretty soon they’re back in—and huddled around the Xbox. “The world has changed,” she says. “Sending the kids outside doesn’t work as beautifully as it used to.”

Also, the boys love sports. Even the toddler, says Ali, “is a maniac with a ball.” And she likes the values that they learn. “A coach will let a kid who’s giving his all play more than one who’s not trying,” she says. “It’s good for kids to see that.”

Of course, no one is saying that children don’t benefit from organized activities. Research shows that sports, lessons, and clubs are associated with better grades and higher self-esteem. “You do it all because you want your kids to have the best life,” says Alvin Rosenfeld, a child psychiatrist on the faculty of the Weill Cornell Medical College, in New York City, and the author of The Overscheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap ($17, amazon.com).

The phrase “the best of intentions” is thrown around a lot when addressing the issue of overscheduling, and those pave the road to you know where. “As kids get older, they pick up on your stress,” says Rosenfeld. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2010 Stress in America survey, parents overall reported that their stress levels were higher than what they considered healthy, but more than two-thirds of parents of tweens and teens said that their stress had little or no impact on their kids. However, only 14 percent of children agreed that their parents’ stress didn’t bother them at all.

“People ask me, ‘What’s the best thing you can do for your kids?’ ” says Rosenfeld. “I tell them, ‘Have more fun with your spouse as a couple.’ If the marriage suffers, the kid suffers.” If that feels like one more thing to check off your to-do list, then that’s a good sign you’re burned-out. A few more signs, adds Rosenfeld: “When you don’t have time to go to the bathroom alone. If you haven’t done anything for yourself in what seems like decades. And if you find yourself equating martyrdom—all for you and none for me—with superb mothering, then maybe you ought to slow down.”

“If you have a child who wants to do everything, help him choose,” says Kim John Payne, a family counselor in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the author of Simplicity Parenting ($15, amazon.com). “When parents argue, ‘But Johnny likes it,’ ” says Payne, “I ask, ‘Does he like fries?’ Not everything your child likes is good for him.” And if your child is often whiny or edgy, then he may be taking on more than he can handle.

Payne also doesn’t think that parents should arrange multiple playdates each week. He’s a fan of the group playdate: One or two parents go to a park, where the other parents drop the kids off. The children get to see several friends at once and spend time outdoors, and the non-supervising grown-ups get a break.

Finally, says Rosenfeld gently, parents don’t have to say yes to every opportunity. No one wants to play Mean Mom, so instead think of saying no to one thing as saying yes to something else (like sanity). “If you can’t say no,” he says, “how will your child learn to do it?”

Ali has learned to let some things go. She remembers an afternoon last spring when Ford got off the bus. “It was a beautiful day,” she says, “and he had baseball, so he needed to hustle. He looked at me like ‘That is the last thing I want to do right now.’ I thought, Is missing this one game going to hurt anything? So we went swimming.”