If this is Tuesday, it must be Mini-Gym day for Maggie. "Mom, this is my dance class day. Where are my shoes?" asks Maggie on Thursday.
Maggie, who is 4 years old, attends a child care center from 7:30 to 4:00 (Monday through Friday). On Mondays she is bused from the center to the YWCA, where she remains until 5:30, because her mother has a late staff meeting on Mondays and cannot pick Maggie up at the contracted hour of 4:00. She also has to work late on Wednesdays, and on that day Maggie goes home with her friend Caitlin, and her mother picks her up at Caitlin's house at 6:00. Every other Friday her dad picks her up, and she spends the weekend with him and her step-mother and step-brother.
Think I'm exaggerating? Then just talk to mothers of a few 4-year-olds. And it's not just children of mothers who work outside the home who need these Palm Pilots for little kids. In fact, daily schedules for children of mothers who do not work outside the home but run Bargain Barns for the Junior League or in other ways devote many volunteer hours to community service are often even more tightly packed and chaotic.
A few years ago the psychologist David Elkind wrote a very powerful and influential book, The Hurried Child. In his book he decried the attempts being made to rush children through the early childhood period and have them acquire academic skills not appropriate for the early years. Such rushing, he reasoned, resulted in stressed children who, in time, often rebelled against the entire academic enterprise. I am convinced that a similar problem exists for children in the modern world who are over-scheduled and under-idled. No one has formulated it as a developmental principle, but I am convinced that a certain amount of dawdling is needed for wholesome development. (My own children would probably say that they don't remember ever hearing me say that.)
In view of the realities of modern life, this is not an easy situation to correct.
Maggie's mother has no husband or significant other to share pick-up and delivery with her, and she has to do the best she can to ensure that Maggie is safe during work hours. And, if she didn't work, she and Maggie would be on welfare. The child care center Maggie attends doesn't allow any child to remain there more than 8 ½ hours, so she has to utilize these extra enrichment activities like gymnastics and dancing to be able to meet the time demands of her job.
Are there any solutions?
I'm not sure there are any easy solutions. We live in an age that seems to move like the Fast Forward on a VCR. And we can't Rewind, or punch Pause. Problems created for The Hurried Child could be remedied, at least to some extent, by simply calling attention to the situation and trying to persuade parents to relax their pushing a little bit. But it's not that easy to correct the situation for the Over-Scheduled Child. You can't just say to Maggie's mother, 'Your little girl needs more free time just to relax and play.' A loving answer from her mother might legitimately be 'Where?' 'How?' Modern lifestyles are simply not compatible with leisurely and unstructured family schedules, and our communities aren't set up to handle them. Perhaps our children simply need to adjust to that reality.
If there are answers, they lie within three settings: the child care world, the business world, and the family world.
Child care services, originally designed to be flexible enough to meet the needs of mothers as well as protect their children, have lost some of that flexibility over the years. But the centers, which might enroll from 30 to 200 children, are not the only option. Mothers whose work schedules require them to put their children into chaotic arrangements might want to try family child care, small settings in which a woman might care for just a few children and be able to adapt more readily to parents' changing work schedules.
To me, even better is the solution of attaching child care to elementary schools and calling the service by a more appropriate name—educare—which reflects the fact that education, as well as care and protection, is a vital part of the service. These larger facilities can more easily contract to have gymnastic and dance and art classes offered right on the premises after the regular school day and thus avoid some of the otherwise oppressive chauffeuring around that some children have to work into their schedules. They might even be big enough to have a Dawdling Room for the late afternoon children!
Many family advocacy groups are working to encourage greater concern extended to the children of employees by large and small corporations. A key request is often for more flexibility in work hours for mothers of young children . Although much progress has been made in America, we probably lag behind other countries (like France) in achieving this goal on a large scale. Many businesses now offer educare on their premises or else help subsidize contracted care provided by a private company. Increased availability of such services in or near where mothers work will help reduce the need for so much shuttling and scheduling of the whereabouts and activities of young children.
The family has to help also. When Maggie and her mother get home, mom wants to kick off her shoes and maybe watch the evening news. Maggie wants to eat supper—or watch TV until bedtime. Hopefully the two can work out a compromise: maybe Maggie can watch TV for a half hour and then play with her toys while mom gets dinner. (I'm being generous here and counting a half hour of TV as dawdling time. But if it extends to the whole hour, the system isn't working right; after all, TV runs by the clock and can easily become just another item on the crowded schedule.)
Maggie needs a little time for entirely free play—re-establishing herself with her toys, looking at books, lying on the bed singing to herself, etc. Time to forget all about what day it is or even what time it is—except for what her stomach will soon tell her!
Hopefully all these resources will combine efforts to help reduce the burdens of the Over-Scheduled Child. If not, I think we can expect to find more and more signs of stress in younger and younger children.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.