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Jewish World Review August 24, 2000 / 23 Menachem-Av, 5760

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Consumer Reports

Family time comes far down the summer schedule -- WHEN as a kid I was asked to write essays on "What I Did on My Summer Vacation." I was right in line with my little friends when I wrote things like "I played a lot, rode bikes, and got Popsicles from the ice cream man."

But as the end of summer approaches today, I realize that if I had to write on the same topic I'd really be at odds with my peers. I'd describe a summer of letting my three little ones (the oldest is 6) get up in the morning when they felt like it. Of lots of lazy days at the pool, of taking them to summer concerts nearby, of watching them play in the backyard or the local park, of making "smores" over the grill. Of some tennis lessons, lots of cook-outs, and a few relaxed field-trips to local museums. Mainly, I'd write about how our family, "The Hart Team" as we call it, simply enjoyed each other.

What a sharp contrast to so many folks today. Because for more and more parents, it seems the standard summertime fare is shuttling kids back and forth from weeks-long summer camp here, to all-day "enrichment" programs there, to twice-a-day sports practice in this league and an evening game in that one too - exhaustion, and families out of touch with each other. Their papers might have to be titled "What Summer Vacation?"

But of course summer is nothing compared to what goes on during the school year. Gone are the days of a child staying home with mom and siblings until morning kindergarten. Now record levels of children are enrolled in preschool, and they are starting at earlier ages. Kindergartens are increasingly moving toward all day schedules, and even all day/every day programs for three-year-olds aren't unusual.

Then in grade school it's homework and lots of it. The average time spent doing homework is at an all-time high, with some kids in the earliest grades spending hours on it each night. Never mind that extensive studies of the effects of homework show that in elementary school it does nothing to improve current or future learning or test performance. (It does only later, in junior high and high school.)

Next comes the intense sports programs, activities, music lessons and what appears to be the ever-growing social commitments of even the littlest kids, and it's pretty clear something is out of control.

A University of Michigan study has shown that today's children - and it would seem by extension, their families - don't have nearly the free time kids used to have. But I hardly needed academia to tell me that. Scanning local neighborhoods is sufficient. And looking at the emotional and behavioral health of today's kids and teens, where problems are soaring according to another recent study recently reported in the journal "Pediatrics," it's at least clear we aren't any better off with all this hyperactivity.

Thankfully, I'm not the only one who thinks we're worse off. A new grass-roots organization called "Family Life 1st" based in Wayzata, Minn., is committed to pushing back the trend toward family over-scheduling and to making family life "an honored and celebrated priority." According to a recent Newsweek magazine profile of the group, the group is encouraging local sports teams and other organizations to make more room for family time. As Newsweek explained it, Family Life 1st co-founder Barbara Carlson thinks that "a jammed household calendar ... has become the new status symbol." As Carlson says, "it used to be a house or car. Now you say 'You're busy? You should see how busy we are.'"

Or as Newsweek put it, "Already worried about building a resume that will get their offspring into Harvard, many ambitious parents schlep their kids to violin lessons at 3 and sign them up for T-ball as soon as they're big enough to hold a bat. And That's just the warm-up."

The good news is that many experts, and it seems even more and more moms and dads, are beginning to recognize that all this activity is coming at the expense of fundamentally important family time, ties, and connectedness.

Hey, I too want my kids to enjoy music and sports and to do well in school. And I think it's great when a child can pursue within reason activities he truly likes. But my husband and I want our kids to stay grounded, which means in summertime and all the time "The Hart Team" will strive to keep family time at the top of our "to do" list.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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10/15/99: On a first-name basis with a three-year-old

© 2000, Scripps Howard News Service