Are kids today overscheduled?

May 10, 2006

My daughter is a cherubic 16-month-old. She is bright, energetic, curious, independent and already knows several words in English and Spanish.

Yet I worry that I’m not doing enough to stimulate her intellectual growth.

When she was 6 months old, I looked into Gymboree classes. “Doesn’t this music class sound fun?” I asked my husband, who cares for our daughter 3 days a week. “Eh,” he said, before turning back to his laptop.

At 7 months, we took her to a Baby Signs class. We resolved to sign furiously, to teach her to communicate her wants and needs rather than throw tantrums.

The dedication lasted two weeks; somehow, she did manage to learn a few basic signs, which is very cool.

Now I read child development books and surf the web, wondering what more I could be doing to ensure that our little girl gets off to the best start. Mommy and Me yoga classes? An art class? Should we be sending her to a specialized Spanish tutor, rather than trying to teach her ourselves?

Deep down, I know I’m being ridiculous. Feeling like we have to educate our kids from the moment they leave the womb is an entirely modern phenomenon, endemic to the educated, upper-middle class, according to this column, written by a fellow guilt-ridden mom. And those wily for-profit companies are only too happy to prey on our anxities:

The choices of structured activities for the under-3 set are seemingly endless: Exercise outlet My Gym has increased its franchises by almost 50 percent since 2002; Kindermusik and Gymboree are now known nationally; yoga and language lessons for wee ones can be found in upscale neighborhoods from Bethesda to Beverly Hills. These organizations promise to teach kids — sometimes as young as a few weeks old — the foundation work necessary for learning how to tumble, dance, sing and draw, as well as how to be a good team player. Yet the sessions cut into the time young children need for exploring and playing with little adult guidance or interference — activities that ultimately teach them other equally necessary skills.

The end result: some child development experts say that overscheduling your kids can be detrimental, because too much structured activity prevents them from learning how to mediate disputes independently, or trust their own imaginations.

Many, including the author, are skeptical of the many benefits touted by those who provide these classes:

There is…little evidence of even one infant artist or toddler gymnast left behind simply because their parent neglected to enroll them at the local gym or music studio. A New York City class that teaches infant sign language touts a study purporting to show that babies who were taught to sign before they could speak had greater vocabularies at age 2 — a finding that common sense suggests could also be explained by the fact that parents willing to put that much effort into communicating with pre-verbal children might also be working harder on their language development.

At the end of the day, I don’t want my child to have a schedule that’s busier than mine. I don’t want her rushing off from Brownies to soccer practice to piano lessons with barely a second to breathe. I will try to remember that whole generations have done just fine without Gymboree, and let my daughter’s interests dictate her future extracurricular activities.

For now, I will continue to stimulate her intellectual development the old-fashioned way: by stacking blocks for her to knock over with glee, singing Elmo songs at the top of my lungs, and pointing out the wonder and beauty of the world around us.