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Filling Life to the Brim

Whether through sports, music or a variety of special-interest clubs, students have ample opportunity for fun and enrichment after the academic day is through. These days, kids should have no excuse for being bored by 4 p.m. But while parents may stress the importance of taking advantage of extracurricular activities, they also caution against taking on too much.

Maureen Patterson, an assistant superintendent in the Liverpool Central School District who also teaches at Le Moyne College, says it often appears that kids are busier these days compared to decades past. Students aren’t focused just on activities that they enjoy after school, they’re also focused on building a resume for college and beyond. Older kids are more apt to be involved in volunteer work. Student athletes are committing more time to sports outside of the school with year-round training or travel clubs that prepare them for varsity competition. More kids are working part-time jobs to help support their family. And then there are electronic pursuits, including games and social media, which even the busiest kids manage to find time for late at night.

“Lives are busy, and we fill them to the brim,” said Patterson in an email interview.

These are the rules

Claire and Mike Lindstrom, of Baldwinsville, employ a very clear policy for helping their four kids, none of whom is in high school yet, balance academics with family time and extracurricular activities: Only one activity outside of school at a time, and you must start what you finish. No quitting a sport midseason.

Twelve-year-old Jessica tried soccer and karate and now does chorus. Eric, 10, tried karate and hockey and now prefers band. Seven-year-old Luca does baseball, while Mira, 5, is involved in ballet.

There are a lot of forms to fill out and permission slips to sign. Advance notice of schedules is mandatory. If a child informs their parents of an event at the last minute, Claire Lindstrom says, “Too bad. They’re out of luck.” Likewise, certain family events, like an uncle’s birthday or a cousin’s graduation ceremony, trump a rehearsal or training session.

“Very rarely do we miss a game or a practice, but if it becomes too chaotic and interferes with family (events), we remind them that family is the most important,” Lindstrom says. “It’s about what’s fair to everyone. We live in a society of entitlement, unfortunately. My advice is to set limits. So many parents want their kids to try so many different things, but don’t let your kids’ activities take over your lives.”"

The Lindstroms believe that the arts as well as sports can enrich their children’s education and personal development. Activities for the whole family include church and picnics.

“Even then, all the kids are doing their own thing. One kid is kicking a ball and another is doing a handstand, but at least we’re all together.”

Lots of laundry

Susan and John Boyle, of Syracuse, have four children in city schools, two at Roberts Middle School and two at Corcoran High School. They have allowed their kids to take on multiple activities after school, ranging from soccer, softball and indoor track, to out-of-school activities such as private music lessons, indoor soccer, skiing, snowboarding and horseback riding.

The schedule can be hectic. It involves going directly to a violin lesson immediately after soccer or softball practice. It involves getting to a 5 a.m. karate “boot camp” program before the school day. It involves weekend treks to a stable. The drives are even longer in the winter, with regular trips to the ski slopes or an indoor soccer center way outside the city.

Susan Boyle stresses that she has not allowed her kids to participate in every activity that they want to try. She’s said no to crew, figure skating and gymnastics.

“The activities that they participate in have been carefully thought out,” Boyle says. “We always discuss the commitment required for practice and whether or not we see it as a learning/growth opportunity before we sign up for anything. We want our children to learn to commit to an activity, enjoy learning new skills, to engage in teamwork and to learn the self-discipline required for success. And, of course, to make friends and have fun.”

Boyle respects her children’s desire to socialize and enjoy leisure activities during their “downtime.”

“They really enjoy downtime and spend it with friends coming over, going to the mall, playing with neighborhood kids, reading books, video games, TV and social networking,” Susan says. “I allow my kids to play video games and watch TV and have sleepover parties. I feel that they work hard and do well in school, and I typically don’t worry too much about it if they want to relax in front of the TV sometimes. They don’t get a ton of downtime, so when I am not nagging them to put their laundry away or pick up their messes, I let them relax. I try to make sure that they always have a book going and they do like to read—some more than others.”

When the school year ends, the summer schedule is just as crazy. Boyle plans family meals in advance with the goal of having everyone at the dinner table at least three times a week. “Sometimes it’s at 7:30 pm,” she says, “but
we make it work.”

The downside to all of these extracurricular activities, Boyles notes, is the excessive amount of laundry and the expense for gas and private lessons outside of school. But it’s still money well spent on enrichment, considering the price difference between public school and private school.

“It has been a good decision for our family,” she says.

Everything in balance

Helping a child to manage his or her schedule is difficult enough with both parents in the house, let alone for a single mother like Jean Schneible, of LaFayette. In her case, she has used extracurricular activities as both a motivator and a deterrent: If the child does not make a solid effort in school, then there’s no point in even discussing activities after school. She thinks school districts’ policies for placing student athletes on probation don’t go far enough.

“Your home rules should be tougher than the school’s,” she says. “You have to teach them that balancing (academics and sports) is a big responsibility.”

Schneible’s children—a grown daughter, and one son in college and the other a high school senior—also had to complete regular chores like emptying the dishwasher and keeping bedrooms and bathrooms clean. All three of her children followed this policy from the time they were 6 years old. The chore rule is especially important in the summer, Schneible says, when the kids are off from school and may tend to forget that they have responsibilities. When classes and fall season practices resume in early September, they hit the ground running.

Schneible’s oldest, Christina, is now 30 and lives locally. With Christina, who was active in softball and cheerleading, mother and daughter learned just how difficult it is for a teenager to manage extracurricular activities without close parental oversight. Schneible was forced to pull her daughter out of sports for a while, and learned with her younger children, John and Ivan, that it’s better to teach them the policy early on and give them warnings first before taking drastic action.

School is more rigorous for kids these days than it was when Schneible was young, and the expectations for student athletes are much higher. “I got more sleep than they do,” she says, “and I was never up until midnight doing homework after an off-season baseball practice.”

John graduated from LaFayette High School in 2011 and maintained a 94.5 grade point average while also playing golf, basketball and baseball. He completed one year at Onondaga Community College so he could maintain a part-time job, and he recently transferred to the University at Buffalo. Ivan, now a high school senior, plays golf in the fall and tennis in the spring. He’s looking at a handful of state schools, including SUNY Albany.

Schneible has never said no to a child’s request to try a new sport, but she did not allow them to join ski club if it overlapped with training sessions for a school sport. She never bought them any video games, but she did allow her boys to buy them if they worked and saved their own money. With every report card, there has always been a discussion about what Mom expects and how family members can help each other to perform better.

“John has been a good mentor for Ivan,” she says. “If I notice the social studies grade drops from an A to a B, we’re all going to talk about it. I tell them, “I work 50 hours a week. Going to school seven hours a day isn’t that bad.’”

Patterson, the assistant superintendent in Liverpool, says she believes that, for the most part, children today are getting enough sleep to handle busier schedules. Both kids and adults tend to work later into the night while multitasking with smartphones, Facebook, music and sometimes video games.

“I do have students who need more sleep in the morning,” she says, “but so do their teachers!”

As for homework, young people have heavier loads than their parents did, Patterson says. Setting priorities to get that extra work done can be overwhelming at a time when districts offer so much else: arts, sports, academic clubs and opportunities to do volunteer work or develop leadership skills.

“In most cases, (homework) is more meaningful, as it should be. Homework is meant to be practice of what is taught in the classroom, not something students should be learning on their own. The primary teaching has to happen in the classroom, not at home,” Patterson says.

“We shouldn’t be judging students based on work they do out of the classroom. As teachers implement appropriate homework, the assignments and projects change with different expectations, and may actually occupy more time, albeit more worthwhile moments spent practicing their skills. Unfortunately, schools are still in transition with homework as teachers learn better practices about assigning, using, and grading homework.”

Aaron Gifford is a writer who lives in Cazenovia with his wife and two children.

Photos above: Michael Davis Photos

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