SALT LAKE CITY — Donnie Hutchinson ran out of steam briefly a couple of weeks ago.
The busy dad was scrambling to get a bunch of things done that day, including work and running his dad to the hospital. He was also supposed to drive his youngest teens, 13 and 14, to their weekly gymnastics workout 20 minutes away. It was snowing outside and blustery cold and he just flat-out lacked the oomph.
"I've been stretched," said Hutchinson, a work-life balance researcher and professor at the University of Dayton, who wrote the book "Lead with Balance: How to Master Work-Life Balance in an Imbalanced Culture." "I had to say, 'I've done too much today. You can make up the gymnastics class when you feel like it at some point down the road.'"
Most families are no strangers to over-scheduling. The majority of parents work — increasingly in jobs that may not turn off at the end of the shift, allowing emails and other tasks to trickle into family time. Meanwhile, parents and kids of all ages are scrambling to make it to sporting events and choir practice and volunteering stints that are all designed to craft well-rounded, accomplished kids. They're trying to find time for homework and everything else that's supposed to sculpt kids who'll be successful adults.
The right balance of activity brings joy and skills and brightens futures. But too much activity can backfire into burnout for both child and harried parent, says Brian Willoughby, an associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and an expert on emerging-adult development.
"This is not a new idea, but I think the research is telling us it's getting worse," he says, noting reasons for overbooked lives vary by family. Middle- and upper-middle-class families, for instance, often overdo because they have serious college aspirations for the kids and fear the child won't be competitive unless he's great at everything.
No matter why families overdo, they should be wary of the math, child development experts say: When too many hours are filled with even beloved activities like organized sports or marching band, families have less time together to bond and develop rituals, or even to transmit family values.
"You start to get less and less intergenerational transmission, which means the kids don't necessarily buy into Mom's and Dad's life philosophy," from religious beliefs to work ethic and relationship and educational values, Willoughby cautions.
You also get parental exhaustion, adds Sarah Anderson, an Aurora, Colorado, mom who knows it would be easy to run herself silly if she let all six of her kids, ages 2 to 11, do anything that caught their fancy. Instead, she and her husband Malcolm, a physician, have put some rules in place so activities don't become too much.
"I feel that teaching them to choose what is most important to them now as well as teaching them that they can't do it all prepares them for family life as an adult. You really can't do it all, and it is OK to choose not to," says Anderson.
Limits and free play
Kelsey Torgerson, a licensed clinical social worker at Compassionate Counseling in St. Louis, describes herself as "a child anxiety specialist — and an over-scheduler myself."
Over-scheduling appeals to parents because they want to provide their kids with an abundance of opportunities to find their talents and reap the proven benefits of organized sports, art classes, chess clubs and more, she says.
The right activities may open future doors to the best colleges or jobs — or at least parents and older children hope so.
"But at a certain point, it becomes overwhelming and it gets in the way of everything else. It's important to find a balance, which is different for each family," Torgerson says. "As a therapist, I encourage a family to look at the pros and cons of each activity being scheduled. How much value does it add? What are you losing from this? There's definitely a balance between great activities while still making time for family meals and together time."
Anderson has a definite idea on what she might lose if the activities of six kids pile up too deep: "My mind." That's one reason why the Andersons have rules: Before kindergarten, the littlest Andersons don't sign up for anything. The older kids consistently take piano lessons. For other extracurriculars, half the kids can do an outside activity at a time for half the year (they rotate), so one could pick a spring or fall sport or a half-year of dance or gymnastics, for instance.
Even with just three kids doing extracurricular activities during the same season, it's a family rule that an occasional event might be missed as they all support each others' activities. No one complains. "We can't be three places at once, especially when dad's working," says Anderson. "We always try to have a friend on the team for carpooling, but sometimes we have to miss something. We take turns."
She laughs as she adds, "You obviously can tell we're not highly competitive sports people. It's a fun thing for them to do, but we are not planning they will go to college on it. So taking breaks and not continually moving up to the next step is how we roll."
Because they live close to the school, there's a little flexibility as the kids get older if one of them wants to do something right before or after school and can get there independently, she adds. Right now, one stays later for choir practice.
She wants her kids to try new things and cultivate interests. Anderson sees that her children learn to work with others outside family. They can see if they enjoy something — and if they don't, they still learn the responsibility of finishing out the season because they signed on for it. They also feel what it's like to be involved in a community and get out of their comfort zone.
Other families may pack schedules to avoid the "I'm bored" complaints from the kids. "Parents can think they need to do something about the 'I'm bored' complaints of their children, when actually sometimes children just need to work through their feelings and figure out what they want to do," says Kate Orson, author of "Tears Heal: How to listen to our children," due out in April.
Learning to engage and entertain oneself is a life skill everyone needs to develop.
Dial it back
Down time is critical for healthy families, and Terra Wellington tries to keep every Sunday and a couple of Saturdays a month clear for church and unstructured family time. Human bodies need periodic slowdown, she says. She also encourages her kids to focus on one extracurricular activity at a time.
"There is true joy and increased confidence in learning a skill and talent versus dabbling," says Wellington, a lifestyle coach and TV personality who divides her time between Los Angeles and New York. "This also helps in managing time."
Hutchinson bemoans the increase in kids' sporting events on Sundays that leave no time for families to recuperate or rest given the press of school assignments and other activities — or practices that go six nights a week.
The family may not be responsible for the overbooking, he adds. Sometimes, it's "us versus the system. They pack so much in and expect so much of children and parents. I think from a cultural standpoint we need a little revolt."
Stacy Haynes is a mom and a therapist who understands how hard it is to balance a child's interests and goals with setting realistic limitations. The Turnersville, New Jersey, woman said she and her husband finally figured out that two or three activities a night for Paige, who is 11, and Paxton, 10, was just too much — for all of them.
"We have everyone pick one sport, one music/creative activity and one other activity (like Scouts or youth group). We have narrowed down our life to only one or at most two rehearsals/practices on one night. We have at least two nights during the week and at least one weekend with no activities," Haynes says.
So Paige has travel soccer, art and dance. Paxton has guitar lessons, Boy Scouts and basketball. That is more than enough for everyone," says the author of "Powerful Peaceful Parenting: Guiding Children, Changing Lives."
The question parents should consider is what the goal is, which is usually that kids master new skills, compete, feel accomplished. Instead, "I think coaches can get out of kilter: win, win, win," says Hutchinson, who adds that the always-win mantra can destroy the real value kids gain from sports.
And if the sheer volume of activities leaves kids doing homework at the kitchen table near midnight, something's out of whack, he warns. That's not healthy or productive. It's just costly.
"The price is absolutely huge: happiness and well-being," he says. "It's not that hard to figure out."