Our Overly Scheduled Children: What Happened to Life as a Journey, Not a Race?


Wow, those days are long gone. These days, life seems so competitive in all aspects of our children’s lives. The pressure to excel in academics and sports is fierce and starts at an early age. Top universities want naturally smart, talented, well-rounded kids with leadership skills, the drive to achieve, a positive attitude, and passion for what they do. The checklist to be a contender includes: 
  1. Stellar grades all four years in high school honors/AP classes including induction into the National Honor Society
  2. Strong SAT and ACT scores; the top schools will accept either so it is strongly suggested to take both tests and submit the one with the higher score
  3. Performing as a top varsity athlete, ideally all four years
  4. Demonstrated leadership roles in extracurricular activities such as: school clubs, the school newspaper, jazz band, Eagle Scouting, etc.
  5. Community service such as: volunteering with not-for-profit organizations, being a peer tutor/mentor, or member of the volunteer ambulance squad
  6. Strong, well-constructed essay on college applications
  7. Multiple, credible letters of recommendation

By the way, pursuing the volunteer ambulance squad is not a light-hearted decision; it is a huge commitment. In order to qualify to make the squad, it requires taking a summer-long, 250-hour course, passing a tough exam, coupled with the continued commitment of dedicating 12 hours/week plus one weekend shift, and ongoing education.

The list of achievements kids need to add to their resume is never-ending, and many kids feel the pressure to be at the top of the competition. They are going away to attend college summer academic programs focusing on math, science, critical thinking, writing, and/or hard core athletic camps to improve their skills. Other students look to land internships or part-time jobs as early as possible.

All of this impacts not just the individual but often the entire family. Family vacations are cut short, or at times, don’t happen at all due to the schedule demands placed on the kids. If there is a break in their schedule, some kids actually feel anxious if they have any “down time.”

Parents also make huge financial investments, paying for private tutors, SAT preparation courses, and even private college guidance counselors to help their children better prepare for the intense and often overwhelming, college selection and application process. In addition, parents spend tremendous amounts of money on private athletic coaching and training for their children. Expecting a good return on their investment, they set extremely high performance goals, sometimes unrealistic expectations, which can backfire and cause some children to struggle emotionally and physically. Kids need to have fun and feel good about themselves. Unfortunately, it has become a business with high stakes and children may suffer from the tough physical demands and harsh criticism from parents and coaches. For some, it’s all about the win and reputation, and will play kids too hard and overuse them, which can lead to injuries and possible burnout.

Through my interviews with high school students and their parents, they all agreed that yes, the competition is fierce and requires the ability to find the right balance that works for each individual to manage successfully. However, they added that there are many options so it becomes more tolerable to put in the hard work and long hours when they can choose activities they are passionate about. They also highlighted the importance of having a good support system: supportive parents, teachers, coaches, and friends who provide positive, realistic support and encouragement to help achieve their goals. Regarding their college application experience, they offered a few suggestions below that should help minimize the stress level and save time:
  • Keep track of all employment history during grades 9 -12, including dates, and a brief description of duties.
  • Keep track of how many hours per week/year doing a particular activity. All colleges look at how well students manage their time while maintaining a high GPA. 
  • Keep track of all honors, awards, and recognitions, including dates, and a brief description of each organization.

Also, visit the College Board website, which explains how the college application process works.

Unfortunately, some kids don’t have a positive support system or put too much pressure on themselves, and tragedies happen. One particularly devastating example is the recent suicide death of 19 year old freshman track star at UPenn, Madison Holleran, who felt overwhelmed with school work and couldn’t cope with the high bar she set for herself.

It is our job as parents, teachers, and coaches to instill in our children that while success certainly requires a combination of hard work, sheer determination, and natural ability, it also requires the ability to put things in perspective, prioritize, and address challenges in a healthy, solution-focused manner in order to tackle whatever pressures may arise. After all, there are many roads to success, and attending an Ivy League school is only one of them. If we can accomplish this, then in spite of the fierce competition, hopefully there will be fewer tragic losses, and rather a productive journey to success for our precious youth.

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