When the extracurricular industrial complex came to a grinding halt last spring, parents were left scrambling to fill vast hours of unscheduled time. Some activities moved to remote instruction but most were canceled, and keeping children engaged became the bane of parents’ existence. Understandably, screens became default child care for younger kids and social lifelines for older ones.
As American society reopens, going back to our children’s prepandemic activities looks like an enticing way to reintroduce upper-elementary through high-school-age kids to the outside world. For parents with economic means, it’s tempting to return to a full slate of language classes, sports, music lessons and other extracurriculars — a guilt-free plan to keep kids busy with “enriching” activities while we get our jobs done.
But I suggest pausing before filling up their calendars again. We should not simply return children to their hectic prepandemic schedules.
Certainly, some amount of extracurricular activity can offer a welcome break from screens and help children nurture interests. But for Generation Z, the over-scheduling of extracurricular activities has been bad for stress and mental health and even worse for widening racial gaps. Moreover, as I learned when I conducted anthropological research for my book “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success,” it no longer consistently improves the prospects of the white middle-class kids for whom it was designed.
But what can parents do with our kids instead? The answer is simple, though not easy to carry out: We can teach them (and perhaps relearn ourselves) the value of unstructured time and greater civic participation.
This does not mean we should quit our day jobs and devote ourselves instead to endless hours of building forts and playing games. Exposing children to sports, music, art, programming or dance certainly has benefits — including physical exercise, intellectual stimulation and fun — but there are also good reasons to give children time to be bored. Not least of these is it forces them to figure out a way to entertain themselves.