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Too much extracurricular activity?

Photo of Dr. Patrick J. McGrath
Dr. Pat

By Patrick J. McGrath, OC, PhD, FRSC


I am struggling with my 12-year-old daughter's extracurricular activities. After years of one to three hours of extracurricular activities a week, this year it has jumped to almost 10. Included are two nights of cadets including band, a bi-weekly girls group and two after school art club classes. My gut tells me this is way too much. Others tell me that all this activity will keep her out of trouble as she enters her teen years. There is also conflict between my husband and me on which activities are more important. Am I feeling this way because I know it is too much or is it because I am feeling like I am losing my "little girl"?

Dr. Pat responds:

Don't ignore your gut feelings but do not be blindly controlled by them either. If your child is enjoying each of these activities and is keeping up with her schoolwork, adopt a watchful waiting approach. Reassess every three or four months. If you find she is worrying about her activities, or if her mood or school work is suffering, it may be better for her to drop something.

Participation in organized out-of-school activities is good. Activities can promote:

  • initiative
  • team work
  • a sense of belonging
  • self esteem

Children who are in organized activities are less likely to spend hours watching TV or playing computer games. Physical activity such as sports or dance combats obesity and can begin a life long commitment to physical activities.

The quality of leadership is critical. Get to know the leaders and find out what your daughter is doing at each activity. Most agencies are very careful and most leaders are the backbone of the community. But, occasionally people will lead children's groups because they want to be a bully or to molest children.

Many children do not do well in a very competitive situation.

Your values and experiences and those of your husband will influence your opinions about what your daughter does. Different views are helpful because there is no right answer. A broad range of activities is better than super-specialization. What does she want to do? Her opinions are important.

Tripling the time your daughter devotes to after school activities is a challenge. What has she given up to accommodate the extra seven hours? If it is TV time or time hanging out at the mall, great! If it has cut into the time you get to spend doing things with your daughter, that is not good. Don't give up family meals and other family activities. Children need parental involvement in their lives at all ages. Make sure you have time with your daughter.

The right number of hours per week for organized extracurricular activities is unknown. Some kids thrive on being busy. Others need a good dose of down time.

Patrick J. McGrath OC, PhD, FRSC is a clinical psychologist and a researcher. He is Professor of Psychology, Pediatrics, and Psychiatry at Dalhousie University and Vice President - Research at IWK Health Centre in Halifax. He is also the CEO of the Strongest Families Institute, which provides mental health care to families across Canada.

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Dr. Pat will respond to as many letters as possible with evidence-based answers. We hope that the column will be interesting and helpful for readers; however, Dr. Pat cannot provide health care through the column. Please contact a physician or other registered health care professional to provide health care guidance or advice.