Many moons ago, as a university student, I tutored English to two small daughters of a wealthy Korean businessman. I used to arrive at 6pm and the girls had already been to a swimming lesson and violin lesson on top of their full day at school.
One night, the 12-year-old put her head on the desk and closed her eyes.
Most concerning was the impact of long hours in front of the television on mental health. Long hours at child care had a similar impact.
"Big day?" I asked.
"Every day is a big day," she moaned.
It's an issue every parent struggles with how to raise a well-rounded child without running them ragged in the process.
In the US a generation of over-scheduled kids has prompted researchers to consider whether children are being stressed out by their hectic after-school timetables.
University of Maryland Professor of family science, Dr Sandra Hofferth, wanted to see whether evidence that active kids had higher self-esteem and better grades stood up to the test in kids who had more than three or four activities on their plate.
In fact, Hofferth found busy kids did not show greater signs of stress. When they did throw a tantrum at the piano, their parents allowed them to pull back. Instead, it was the 15 per cent of "un-involved children" who alarmed her most - they were withdrawn, socially immature and had low self-esteem.
The study, presented to a time-use conference held in Sydney in December last year, looked at 331 children aged nine to 12. It found the most well-adjusted children made up almost 60 per cent of the group. They were involved in one or two activities, for less than four hours over two days. The over-scheduled kids - those with three or four activities or more than four hours over two days - made up 25 per cent and were doing almost as well.
Kids with no organised activities spent their time bike-riding, reading or watching TV. They were shy, introverted and would have benefited from being more involved. Interestingly, it was the children of mothers with more education and higher family incomes who were busiest.
Australian research from University of New England Professor Michael Bittman reached similar conclusions in four- and five-year olds. He found scheduled activities were linked to better language skills and more school readiness. Most concerning was the impact of long hours in front of the television on mental health. Long hours at child care had a similar impact.
"We find that excessive television watching and long hours of child care increase the likelihood of poorer mental health among children of this age," Bittman says
He found on average kids spent almost 1.5 hours each day watching TV. "If anything, structured lessons and other structured activities might improve mental health."
Equally important are unstructured activities old-fashioned play-time. Bittman says he was pleased to find few Australian preschoolers had hectic schedules.
"The over-scheduling debate here is not yet as strong as in the US," he says. "Guilt plus an exaggerated emphasis on achievement in the US gives you hyper-parenting and children with over-structured schedules getting every advantage their parents money can buy at the earliest possible age.
"While Australian parents also want their children to achieve and are susceptible to anxiety and guilt about their parenting practices, these influences are not as strong [yet] in Australian culture."
According to researchers, the most important thing is for parents to not pressure their children to achieve. Research from Columbia University found children who felt pressure to be the best were anxious about activities and did not enjoy them.
So how to strike the right balance?
University of Newcastle Professor of child psychology, Dr Louise Newman, says parents need to be honest with themselves about why they are pushing their children in a particular direction.
We see kids who are really quite stressed by the amount of things they have to do on top of what they have to do at school," she says. "Sometimes we see parents who didn't have opportunities themselves wanting their kids to achieve in that same field, like the mother who always wanted to be a ballet dancer so the daughter has to do ballet too."
Newman suggests streamlining activities so kids can focus on the things they enjoy. "Children need stimulation and they need space to find things they are good at and enjoy," she says. "But children also just need some time to be children to play and not necessarily do things that are too heavily timetabled."
There are some things children need to be encouraged to do like learning how to swim or being involved in a team sport. But not every child is going to be a super athlete. Parents need to have a sensitive ear and evaluate what is best for their child.
Yowie Bay mother-of-three Marica Drazina says she sometimes worries her sons Ante, 16, and Daniel, 12, are doing too much. The family clocks up more than 500 kilometres each week driving the boys to soccer training at Sydney United Football Club in Edensor Park, near Fairfield.
Ante, who plays in the under-18s premier league, trains on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He attends the clubs Brazilian Soccer School on Wednesdays and Fridays. He is also doing his HSC at St Patricks College, Sutherland.
"I do worry sometimes that Ante is coping but he never complains," Drazina says. "I don't expect them to be superstar soccer players and I did say to my son that if his school work suffered he would have to stop. But it never has. Whenever they have a spare minute they're outside kicking the ball around anyway. They love it."
Lucy Fu, from Neutral Bay, enrolled her daughter Fiona in violin lessons at the Australian Institute of Music when she was seven. Until last year, Fiona, now 11, had lessons twice a week.
"She goes one time a week now," Fu says.
"We cut it down because she was in year 5 and there was more academic work."
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