My thoughts on the over-scheduled, overworked, stressed-out teen begin with the age-old question: What came first, the chicken or the egg? When I look back a few decades, I see the phenomenon of both parents working outside the home starting in earnest at just about the same time public high school budgets started going haywire. Since a typical, public, school-day is as short as 5-6 hours, working parents needed to find activities for their children after school, in the afternoons and evenings, and often, during school holidays. Many after-school businesses have emerged to fill the void. The plethora of available activities are of critical importance to working parents, especially for public school families.
When the first generation of kids that engaged in organized after-school and vacation activities started applying to college, they had lot of activities and adventures to report–all those blanks on the application forms were filled in. Demographic changes (ie. the baby boomer’s boomlet plus globalization) coupled with highly-involved parents transformed what was once a merely competitive college admissions process into a nerve-racking, debt-defying, lifestyle pursuit.
I don’t see the long term problem as one of over-scheduling (any associated stress disorders and/or unhealthy family dynamics is, obviously, a problem) so much as it is one of inequity.
While many private schools have always provided a full day of academics and “enrichment”, public high school students receive the most basic of academic, athletic and arts exposure. The only language taught at the public Valhalla High School, for example, is Spanish but the private Bishop’s School offers Latin, Greek, Spanish, French, Mandarin. Though Valhalla enrolls over 2100 students, it has 23 athletic teams; Bishops, with 800 students, offers 40. The first thing I noticed when my older son transferred to a private school? Students hangout on-campus, in the library, on the fields, in the music room, till way past dinner time. At my younger son’s public school? Unless you were on a team or in a band, you weren’t at school after last period.
Most parents work outside the home. Most students attend public not private schools. Most public schools are underfunded and overcrowded with scant attention to advising, to development of critical-thinking skills, or to job skills. Most parents do not have resources and cannot overcome their child’s inadequate educational environment. Don’t you think we need all students to have access and exposure—to the arts, 21st century science, athletics, nature— to become fulfilled, contributing members of society?
Editor's note: Originally published in 2014. The only additional comment I would add, in 2017, is this: college costs about 10% more now. So, admissions stress is still there. Shameless plug: call A+ for detailed analyses, the pros/cons, of your own college adventure.