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Do expensive sports or music lessons pay off? New study shows parents are banking on yes

Do expensive sports or music lessons pay off? Eight in 10 American parents believe their child’s participation in extracurricular pursuits could one day lead to income, according to a new online poll.
Do expensive sports or music lessons pay off? Eight in 10 American parents believe their child’s participation in extracurricular pursuits could one day lead to income, according to a new online poll.
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SALT LAKE CITY — Eight in 10 American parents believe their child’s participation in extracurricular pursuits could one day lead to income, according to a new CompareCards poll of 724 parents conducted online. And the more they're investing, the more optimistic they are that their children will benefit financially.

Nearly two-thirds of parents (64 percent), however, say they are stressed about paying for their child's activities, and about the same number say they have gone into debt to do so.

Yet many wouldn't do it any differently: Of the 52 percent of parents who spend more than they can afford on their child's activities, 48 percent say they don't regret it.

The new data raises questions about how extracurricular activities are impacting families already stretched thin in terms of both time and money — and how this affects both parents and children.

A 2018 UK study by professors Sharon Wheeler of Edge Hill University and Ken Green of the University of Chester found that extracurricular activity dominates family life today, with 88 percent of children taking part in organized activities four to five days per week, and 58 percent doing more than one activity per evening. For families with more than one child, this involvement becomes substantial.

The amount of time parents spend on children’s activities dramatically increased in the early 2000s according to a 2010 study by University of California at San Diego economics professors Garey and Valerie Ramey. Their study, "The Rug Rat Race," found a dominant component of this increase was the time parents gave to coordinating and transporting older children to activities.

Parents are facing a higher-stakes approach to extracurriculars with the rise of things like club sport teams and involved dance competitions, according to a 2018 CNN report. And while parents have long felt pressure to provide opportunities for their children, Gary and Valerie Ramey find this to be especially true now due to the ever-increasing competition for college admissions.

Meanwhile, 1 in 5 teens in a 2019 Pew Research Center study reported feeling pressured to be involved in extracurricular activities and to be good at sports.

But other findings also show that not participating in the extra things can also have problematic consequences.

Extracurricular involvement is positively associated with success indicators like attendance, achievement and plans for higher education, according to a 1992 study by the National Center for Education Statistics of public high school seniors. Students who participated extracurricularly, for example, were three times as likely to perform in the top quarter on a reading or math test compared with their nonparticipating peers.0

And it isn’t just about academic success — or, as the new poll suggests, financial success. Research published in the Journal of Developmental Psychology in 2006 cites sports as providing “more opportunities for initiative … emotional regulation and teamwork” than other extracurriculars.

Researcher Scott Turner calls these qualities a “way forward” and suggests they offer important future benefits for youth as they develop character, practice social skills and gain self esteem.

As the CompareCards poll illustrates, the price tag for extracurricular activities is often hefty. A University of Michigan study about the cost of after-school activities found sports to be the most expensive venture at around $300, with arts-related experiences such as music or theater at $220. But these numbers don’t account for big ticket items like lacrosse (nearly $8K), competitive dance (around $25K), or figure skating ($60-$100K).

Wheeler, of Edge Hill University, said that although parents’ general intentions are to help their children’s long-term progress with short-term opportunities, the overscheduling these opportunities require is a burden families need to consider.

“While children might experience some of the benefits (of extracurricular activities), a busy organized activity schedule can put considerable strain on parents’ resources and families’ relationships.”

When it comes time to apply for college, standardized test help programs like PrepScholar remind students that the way they spend time outside the classroom is what defines extracurricular experience.

“Extracurricular activities can be almost anything you are productively dedicated to. ... The key is that you get actively involved and make an impact with your involvement."

And if trying to get into college isn’t something a child is focused on, Rachel Hershenberg, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University reminds parents of the benefits of free time.

“If you put a little planning in place in anticipation of your free time, then you increase the likelihood that you will be a more active agent in spending your time well.” Hershenberg continues: “You also increase your opportunity to experience a wider range of positive experiences.”

For parents feeling overwhelmed about after-school activities, former school teacher and speech-language pathologist Rachel Cortese suggests there is value in the structure extracurricular participation provides:

“(K)ids tend to do really well when they have structure, and part of that structure is having an after school schedule.”

Learning specialist Ruth Lee agrees, and argues that the activities don’t have to be extensive or costly with the point being to “give kids social interactions … (and help them) get out some of their energy so they can settle and go back to their (home)work.”

And Lee explains that extracurricular activity also helps kids learn to schedule their time and find there’s time for both work and play: “It’s important to put aside time for things you want to do, so that you know that school isn’t taking all the fun out of your life.”

A previous version of this story credited the poll to LendingTree; however, the poll was conducted by CompareCards. The story has been updated.