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CHILD CARING

With kids' after-school activities, less is more

From calligraphy to curling, Irish step dancing to ice hockey, there's no limit to the activities available for children these days. This may not be as good as it seems. So much choice brings difficult questions. How do you know at what age to start an activity? If you start too soon, she may be too young to like it; wait too long, and her skills may forever lag behind. How do you know which activities to choose? If everyone's doing karate, does that mean your son should, too, or is it better for him to do something no one else is doing? And how do you know he'll like it? Kids are fickle, activities are expensive. What if what you sign her up for in September is boring in November?

For the answers, there are two simple rules of thumb: Less is more, and starting older, at 7 or 9 or even 11, is generally better than starting at 2 or 3 or 4.

Let's be honest, though. That's not the way the trend is going. Even with parents keeping a close eye on their pocketbooks, more children are doing more activities at younger and younger ages.

"The average age the typical parent joined his or her first sport team was 12. The average age for a child today is 6," said extra-curricular maven Stacy DeBroff of Chestnut Hill, author of "Sign Me Up! The Parents' Complete Guide to

Sports, Activities, Music Lessons, Dance Classes, and Other Extracurriculars" (Free Press). In this regard, at least, "The economic downturn could turn out to be a good thing," said developmental and clinical psychologist Diane Ehrensaft. With unemployment high in the Silicon Valley area where she lives, she said parents are more selective about spending their extra-curricular dollar.

She wishes that for all parents. Ideally, extra-curricular activities can enrich children's lives. Too many too soon, however, have the opposite effect.

"It turns them into frazzled basket cases," said Ehrensaft, author of "Spoiling Childhood, How Well-Meaning Parents are Giving Children Too Much but Not What They Need" (Guilford).

So just how scheduled are our children?

They're busier than Kathy Hammond realized. Principal of West Middle School in Andover, she listened last week as six students listed their extra-curricular activities, an average of five apiece. "I'm shocked they're able to pull it off," she said. "I wonder at what expense it comes."

Students have some ideas.

Seventh-grader Eli Grober, who is in seven activities and has a paper route, said, "Sometimes I wish I had more free time to just be with my friends." Classmate Kasey Quinlan, also in seven activities, said she is sometimes too tired to focus on homework. Mike Yastrzemski said his family rarely eats dinner together because he's in the car going to practice.

Their comments mirror the research of Betsy Taylor, founder and president of the nonprofit, pro-family Center for a New American Dream in Bethesda, Md. In her book, "What Kids Really Want that Money Can't Buy, Tips for parenting in a commercial world" (Warner Books), she reports that children wish they had more free time to be with family and friends and to do nothing.

Time to do nothing is an important stress reducer as well as a steppingstone to creativity, said Ehrensaft. She worries that children who grow up moving from one structured activity to another not only lose out on free time but also don't know what to do when they get it. Indeed, when some children beg for yet another activity, it may be because they feel out of sorts with "empty" time, not that they want the activity.

Taylor's son Gus made a trend-bucking decision last year. At 13, he was a star pitcher. Coaches were vying for him. Like many sports, however, baseball is now year-round. Gus wasn't willing to make that commitment, even though he might eventually not make varsity.

"It's a quality-of-life issue," said Taylor. "Gus likes to make bread on a Saturday afternoon, to snag a family member for a game of Hearts, to take a Sunday hike. We think that's just as important."

Many parents may see Taylor's point but feel torn, nonetheless.

"Parents are driven by a fundamental anxiety," said DeBroff. "We perceive the world as increasingly competitive and specialized, so we think the choices we make even for our 4-year-olds are relevant to success in life. We think if we don't give our children an edge, we're being a bad parent."

Ten years ago, Ellen Hoffman of Sudbury started "Making Music," a program for preschoolers. Today, she also offers it for children as young as 18 months.

"Parents demanded it. They're afraid their children might miss an opportunity," she said. "You know what? Other programs have sprung up that offer programming for children even younger, literally at birth."

Indeed, starting a child very young does not necessarily correlate to their increased competence or pleasure. DeBroff said, "I've seen very little kids thrive on something, dance or drama, become a star, love the attention. Then at 7 or 8, the parts get harder, the competition grows, they have to share the spotlight. Their sense of who they are was defined by the activity. Now they're lost."

Her advice is to wait until age 6 to put a child in structured activity, with three exceptions: If she's a musical prodigy; if your identity is wrapped up in a particular activity; or if she's passionate about sports such as soccer, figure skating, gymnastics, or ice hockey.

"These activities can start at 5 because they are highly technical and very competitive," she said. "In everything else, children can catch up."

Probably the biggest issue in any family is when a child wants to quit. Under 7, let them, DeBroff said. Older than that, she recommends a family policy: Once you sign up, you see it through for that session, unless a child is profoundly miserable.

The older the child, the more charged quitting can be because of the investment in time, money, and energy. "You need a thoughtful assessment," she said. "Sometimes they want to quit because they've hit a lull in improving a skill, or a coach rubbed them the wrong way."

On the other hand, especially in the elementary years, wanting to quit can be a child's way of telling you she's over-committed. Usually, there are also other clues: She's too wound up at night to fall asleep; she's uncharacteristically cranky; she returns from an activity on edge, not relaxed.

"Every child needs some down time every day," said Taylor. DeBroff said elementary students need two hours.

The bottom line for DeBroff is to send this message to children: "I value you as a human being, not as a human doing." For Taylor, it's to preserve some family time.

West Middle School student Zach Burdeau currently attends CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, after-school religion classes for Catholics), plays fall baseball, fall basketball, and fall tennis, and has two equally busy siblings. Even so, his parents manage to preserve family time.

"Last night, my family played `Spoons' together," he said. "I don't know how we fit it in."

Contact Barbara Meltz at meltz@globe.com.

Think twice before signing them up
Stacy DeBroff's book ''Sign Me Up!'' deserves to be the bible for parents on how to choose and when to start activities, with guides and resources on sports, arts, performing arts, and community activities. Here are some of her suggestions. For more information, see her website, MomCentral.com.

1. Provide children under 12 with broad exposure so they can figure out what they love. it's not a waste if he tries something and doesn't stay with it; he might go back to it later. Exception: If there's something you insist on - swimming lessons for safety, say - be willing to negotiate limits. If she hates it, is it enough that she can tread water or does she have to pass a deep-water test?

2. Consider a child's temperament, energy level, and interests in setting limits on the number of activities. Some children thrive on being highly scheduled, others see it as pressure. Over-scheduling typically shows up first as sleep disruption. One guideline for elementary years; Only one competitive team at a time, and no more than three activities at once.

3. Go with what's fun for your child, instead of trying to package him.

4. Just because something is available doesn't mean it's appropriate. Strength training is hot, but potentially can be damaging to bones before puberty. Yoga is available for preschoolers, but is better suited to fourth- or fifth-graders. Guideline: Before you sign up a child for anything, watch a class in action, talk to parents whose children attend. What is the temperament of most of the kids who do it? Is there an out-of-class commitment?

5. Set a limit on how much disruption you are willing to tolerate to family life. Make concrete goals: ''We're going to sit down to family dinner four nights a week.''

By Barbara F. Meltz
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