Over-scheduled child syndrome is way worse in divorced families

over-scheduled kids

I wrote this a couple years ago. Since then, I’ve down-shifted our schedule so the kids have just one activity going at a time … this season it is soccer, with its Saturday games and Monday evening practices. I’d love to add music, but that would mean chaos and exhaustion. So they do less. It is fine — first-world problems, certainly — but disappointing nonetheless. 

How about you? How do balance the back-and-forth of a separated family with extracurriculars? Share in the comments! 

As my kids get older — they’re turning 5 and 7 within the next couple of weeks — our schedules get crazier.

Monday is after-school music lessons. Thursday is swim class. Friday has been designated as movie night, the one evening we watch the screen while eating and we munch on appetizers for a meal. Wednesday usually means a dinner guest, and Saturday is our “adventure day” — when we drive out of town to hike, or go to a children’s film festival, ice skating or the beach. Then Tuesday, Saturday night and Sunday are Daddy Days.

I try really, really hard not to be one of those parents. You know — those over-ambitious Tiger Mother types who funnel all her self-worth into her kids’ academic/creative/athletic accomplishments, and therefore hyper-pack their every free moment with un-freeing, scheduled activities. For one, I don’t care so very much about measuring my parenting by  (did you read my “I Don’t Care Where My Kids Go To College” in Forbes?), and believe children need time to be bored, free and get into trouble. You know, be kids.

But my children need to learn to swim, so we take lessons at the YMCA each week. And they love the music lessons at the cute little conservatory in my neighborhood, so we’re signed up there. I believe in ritual, hence movie night. Then there is the two-house, divorce family jam. And the next thing you know we are one of those families and every day is scheduled.

This is really common. Parents work a lot, there’s a lot of pressure to engage our kids in extracurricular, and plenty has been written about the overload of homework starting at a very young age. Many families contend with time challenges and life stresses.

But divorced families have an extra, heavy scheduling layer that adds a whole lot of fatigue. Mostly for the kids.

Mostly, this is all fine. I’m (maybe even too?) lackadaisical about practicing music and homework for kindergartners. The kids seem mostly happy and enjoy whatever it is they are doing in that moment.

However, at various times over the past five years since the end of my marriage, one or another of my kids ha0s had a hard time with visits. Either they are are upset they have to go to their dad’s, or unhappy to be coming home with me. These periods sprout up now and again, last a few weeks, then pass.

In one recent episode it was clear that my daughter simply was tired of going back and forth. She seemed to need a lot of quite time and just wanted to sleep in her bed at my house — where she spends the majority of her time. Her dad and I struggled with how to handle it. It was clear she was genuinely upset — not pulling what I call a “phone-baloney fit” — and we wanted to honor her feelings. Yet we couldn’t let her dictate the schedule. So we pushed through and we kept our regular routine. While talking it over with her, I found myself saying : “Sometimes you just want to be in your own bed. I know that feeling. But I’m not the one who has to go back and forth all the time. It’s not fair.”

And it’s not fair.

So what is the answer?

Don’t tell yourself and the kids they have two homes, as I wrote about here. They don’t. No one has two homes. Growing up, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. That was actually a place that I felt more comfortable than my actual home, but my mom’s house was my home, and when I was shuttled back and forth too much I felt unsettled.

Recognize that it sucks to go back and forth. Some months ago, my son had a meltdown before going to preschool one morning. He had just come back from a couple days at his dad’s and just wanted to chill at home with me. “First I’m at Daddy’s, then I’m here then I’m at school!” he wailed. “I’m nowhere!” Typing that now just kills me. “I’m nowhere.” Ugh.

Check your values about time and achievement. Are you on the Tiger Mom bandwagon or not? Are your kids thriving or stressed? Is there anything you can do to manage this situation? In other words, how much of your over-scheduling stems from you, and your agenda, and how much of it is driven by your kid’s interest, or simply school activities you don’t have control over.

See the situation for what it is. I’m going to take a neutral stand on divorce here. But it sucks for kids. Even if ultimately you and your ex are happier, and that means the kids are happier, and all the fighting has stopped and you’ve hit an equilibrium in your new lives — the kids still have to go back and forth for ever until they don’t any more. And that is just simply unfair.

I don’t advocate for wallowing in guilt – the second you do that the kids will have you wrapped around their fingers for life. 

So how do you deal with this extra schedule stress? Share in the comments!







Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.

Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

4 thoughts on “Over-scheduled child syndrome is way worse in divorced families

  1. Hi – I came to your website after looking at your article about washing, and then have been looking through some other posts. Interesting topics, even for the non single parents amongst us. This is an idea that friends, who lived close to each other, used from time to time with their kids. Rather than the kids changing homes, for a period of time, the parents were the ones who changed. Still gave each parent time with their kids, but less disruption for the kids (who can take a lot of comfort in the same toys, same way home from school, etc). They didn’t do it for ever, but a year or so, and it did help. Something to think about, anyway.

    1. I’ve heard about this — I think it is called ‘nesting’ – I think it makes a lot of sense, except most adults really like having a place to call home. No definitive answers, but good on parents for exploring ideas that work for their family

  2. I love your website. There’s a lot of research on nesting. In your reply to Helen K., you said “Most adults really like having a place called home”. As do children! I don’t think children are “possessions” that should be passed between their parents between each week. Who wants to live that way? Nobody! If we expect children to live that way then adults should be prepared to do it. Let the children live in their home with the parent who has primary custody and let the other parent see the children on the children’s terms.

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