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CHILD CARING

Study: The more activities the better

Challenging the popular notion that children are overscheduled, a new report declares more is better after all. Controversial even before its publication early next month, its conclusions are bound to confuse some parents. Does my child have too much to do or not enough?

``We were trying to find the tipping point: Is there a point at which too much is too much and there's a decline in children's overall well-being?" asks Yale psychologist Joseph Mahoney , lead author of the report, ``Organized Activity Participation, Positive Development, and the Over-Scheduling Hypothesis."

They didn't find one.

``Based on our data, it's difficult to argue that parents should limit participation," Mahoney says.

In a nationwide random survey of 2,125 5- to 18-year-olds, the study found that the more time children spend in organized activities, the better their grades, self-esteem, and relationship with parents and the lower the incidence of substance abuse. Even high school students with more than 20 hours of activities a week don't suffer for it, he says. The study defines organized activities as adult-led and having a purpose. It includes community service and after-school programs, as well as music, religious education, and sports.

So what about all the discussion in recent years that children who do too much are too tired for homework or burn out on a sport before high school?

``We are scapegoating overscheduling," says another researcher, clinical and developmental psychologist Suniya S. Luthar of Teachers College, Columbia University. Her study, published in June , reached conclusions similar to Mahoney's even though her population was 300 eighth graders from affluent families only.

``Activities themselves are good things," she says. ``When there are problems -- poor psychological profiles, low functioning at school, general unhappiness -- they are caused by the children's perception that adults are critical of them or setting expectations that are unrealistic, or because they are unsupervised after school."

In 12 years as an educator, Larry Donovan, assistant head of school at the Chestnut Hill School in Chestnut Hill, says he has not seen a child who was struggling academically due to overscheduling. Rather, `` there's an LD [learning disability] or a problem with self-discipline." But he does see highly scheduled kids who have trouble with failure. ``They can't tolerate the B+."

Despite the attention the so-called overscheduled child gets, only 6 percent of the children in Mahoney's study spend more than 20 hours a week in activities. What shocked Mahoney is that 40 percent have no activities at all.

``These are the kids with poor grades, low self-esteem, a high rate of substance abuse, and poor relationships with parents," he says. These children also typically have families with low er income s.

Massachusetts General Hospital child psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld disagrees with Mahoney's methodology but concurs with this conclusion, calling it a public health issue. Luthar says Mahoney's study ``highlights the need for more quality extracurricular opportunities and better transportation in low-income communities. Parents in all economic brackets need to know what we, as scientists, already know: that activities are good."

There are caveats. ``Quality activities are appropriate to the child's ability and development," says Mahoney. ``They're led by competent adults and offer a challenge but not an anxiety-provoking challenge. Most importantly, the child makes the choices."

Rosenfeld is author of ``The Over-Scheduled Child." He wishes he had titled it ``The Over-Scheduled Family." In any family, he says, `` there is a balance that needs to be achieved between parents being a chauffeur and having a life, between doing what one child wants vs. what the whole family needs." That parental stress translates to children. Mahoney agrees: ``Our data show children aren't suffering from too much. That doesn't mean parents aren't."

Like many parents at the start of a school year, Debbie Acone of Groton struggles with extremes.

Lauren, 10, loves organized activities. ``She wants to do them all," Acone says. `` Last spring, three was too many. She was overwhelmed and didn't sign up for fall soccer. Now she wants it."

Emily, 8, gets overwhelmed by organized activities. She's signed up for nothing.

``I'm encouraging her to choose Brownies or swimming," Acone says. ``Is that wrong? Is she too young for me to worry? Maybe my kids get stressed from too much because I don't overschedule them and they're used to free time, whereas kids with heavy schedules don't get stressed because they don't know from free time."

Mahoney's study doesn't break activity level down by age, but he hopes to follow these students for many years to answer some of these questions. His bottom line is that some activity is better than none, especially if none means hours of TV. Unless, of course, it's an activity a child hates.

``Then there won't be any benefits," he says.

Contact Barbara Meltz at meltz@boston.com.

Pop-up TIPS FROM BARBARA MELTZ: Is your child overscheduled?
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