by Steve Jones
Legendary college basketball coach John Wooden, who won 10 NCAA championships at UCLA, once said, “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.”
But try telling that to the modern family, which is often overscheduled and locked in an ongoing struggle to find free time. Today’s cluttered schedules are filled with activity. But does that constant motion bring people closer to a sense of achievement, contentment and happiness?
“I think families are busier than ever,” said Kim Rhoton, a licensed therapist in Westminster. “As a culture, we do think that busier is better, but that’s a false equivalency. Somehow, the concept of sitting around and relaxing got framed as a negative.”
Rhoton believes that overscheduling, and the resulting absence of down time, is a contributing factor to the “fair amount of anxiety” that she is seeing in her clients.
“When people have all these things that they’re juggling, they simply can’t maintain that pace,” Rhoton said. “If their calendars are full, people are rushing from one activity to the next. It’s always, ‘I’ve got to get to the next thing.’”
The hypercompetitive nature of modern living is also exacerbating the problem. Shari McCourt, the associate pastor of Westminster United Methodist Church, believes that families have to examine their basic needs and adapt their lifestyle accordingly.
“There’s a difference between need and want,” McCourt said. “When we don’t know the difference, we think that want is need. It’s on a much bigger level now, because it’s not just neighbors talking over the backyard fence. If you’re plugged in to all different sources, it’s now in your face all the time, and it skews your perspective.”
With so many choices available to today’s youth, families can get pushed to the limit.
“Looking back on my childhood, I was crazy busy as well,” said Diana Fritz, the founder of MOPS, a group for mothers of young children and adolescents that is based in Westminster. “I saw all that my mom did for us, and I feel that you’re always trying to do a little bit better than what you had for your own kids.”
The Human Cost
Gwen Furano has witnessed the consequences of overscheduling on young children.
“When kids feel overwhelmed, it’s difficult for them to concentrate when they’re in school, and therefore their academics suffer,” said Furano, the guidance counselor at Manchester Elementary School. “This leads to more homework, when there is limited time to do it at home. They also lack sleep, which is critical at this age, leading to more difficulty with concentration and paying attention in school.”
The full schedules are also having a negative effect on the physical health of young people, especially athletes.
“There’s a higher incidence of injuries to kids,” said Ermanno Costabile, a physical therapist in Catonsville and Sykesville. “The kids are pushed harder, at an earlier age. You see a lot more overuse injuries like tendinitis. There are more hamstring pulls and strains than you’ve ever had, because I think the kids are just overworked.”
McCourt believes that people can slow the pace of life by focusing on the present, instead of getting distracted by upcoming tasks and responsibilities.
“It’s a matter of what you need to be doing today,” McCourt said. “You can do it all, but not all at one time. Most people have the answers within themselves.”
Finding the Balance
For the past two-plus decades, there have been few quiet moments at the Costabile home in Sykesville. Ermanno and his wife, Amanda, raised four sons who excelled in athletics and academics. Chris, Craig, Kyle, and Bryan were notable student-athletes at Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore. Chris played intercollegiate lacrosse at Dartmouth College, and Bryan is a junior at Notre Dame who earned All-America honors in lacrosse this year.
“From the time Chris started playing to when Bryan started, high school sports went from being a fun extracurricular activity to people being cutthroat about certain things,” said Amanda Costabile. “Bryan loved playing football and lacrosse. Because he played quarterback and had two coaches in two years [at Mount St. Joseph] and had to learn new offensive systems, he’d be there very late. Sometimes, we had to say that something has to give, and it’s OK to choose one or the other.”
But the heavy academic and athletic demands put pressure on Bryan, who was playing two sports at Mount St. Joseph while being recruited to play lacrosse at the NCAA Division I level.
“Thankfully, I enjoy being busy,” he said. “I knew I had to work extremely hard to make it. But it was a lot to handle, and at times it cost me. I needed to not wear myself down. My parents did an amazing job of helping me manage that [situation]. They talked to my coaches, who were very understanding.
“My biggest advice is to work hard, but don’t stress. If something goes wrong, handle it and keep moving.”
While the stress level in organized sports must be carefully monitored, there are other activities that can also overwhelm families.
“Dance and 4-H are big commitments,” Furano said. “I have worked with 4-H students who become very overwhelmed when all the projects become due. And when a dance competition is coming up, the girls can have practice every night for several hours.”
Fritz is learning how to guard against the scheduling conundrum. She and her husband, Jeff, have to juggle the schedules of three active children. Emily, 11, is an equestrian who is also involved in 4-H; 8-year-old Ella is a competitive gymnast who practices her sport at least 12 hours a week; and their youngest child, 5-year-old Addison, is also involved in gymnastics.
“We just try to do the things that are necessary, but still have time for family dinners and activities together,” Diana Fritz said. “In reality, everybody that has small children at some point in time is going to be overwhelmed. But I embrace the crazy, and really enjoy watching my kids participate in the things that they love.”
Tasha Weathers, the discussion group leader for the Westminster MOPS group and mother of Owen, 5, Austin, 2, and 1-year-old Blake, grew up in Jacksonville, Fla. Her husband, Reed, is a native Texan. Weathers acknowledged that seeking help from others is crucial.
“You have to be willing to take the help that people offer to you,” she said. “That’s where our MOPS group helps each other tremendously.”
Weathers recently underwent a life change that has made for a more flexible and less hectic schedule.
“I stopped working,” said Weathers, who has been a Westminster resident for just over a year. “Work didn’t fit into our lives, and it’s better for me to be home. I want to be home, because having to run around and get [the kids] from here to there while still working was too much for our family.”
For a new mother, the lessons learned from her MOPS experience were helpful.
“I joined MOPS before I had [my daughter], and it was very overwhelming for me,” said Theresa Amoss of Westminster, who is expecting her second child later this year and is the mother of 18-month-old Esther. “All of them talked about how crazy and busy and chaotic life was. I decided I needed to say no to things that I knew were going to be too much for me as a new mom.”
A Return to Calm
Most families understand the feeling of being overwhelmed, but the solutions to the problem can be harder to implement. Fritz suggested three strategies that will help families move in a more positive direction.
“My No. 1 [strategy] would be to unplug from all media, and get back to what is simple,” Fritz said. “Social media can be such a distraction. The time that you’re sitting there scrolling through Facebook is the time that you’re missing out on something that’s going on with your family, or a conversation with your husband. Secondly, take care of yourself and your marriage. And No. 3, prioritize and make time for what is most important for your family.”
“You have to look at each child and see if it’s going to be too much,” Weathers said. “You need to have them choose what is right for them, and realize that they can’t do everything.”
Furano emphasized that families need to assess their children’s homework obligations before signing up for activities.
“Find out what the time commitment truly is,” she said. “Talk to parents of older children who have participated in these activities previously, and be sure that the child has buy-in and is committed.”
Rhoton suggested that smart scheduling will help stressed parents and children move to a more comfortable place.
“If families can be clear about their priorities and mindful of their schedules, there can be a shift,” she said. “Families and couples should get together about scheduling, date nights, dinners with the family, and letting their kids play unstructured. I believe that once you make a commitment, you should see it through. But you have to be able to say no, and not feel guilty about it.”