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Balance is key when keeping kids busy and avoiding over-scheduling

BELLEVUE, Wash. -- Kids are involved in lots of activities, but what's the right balance and how do you avoid overbooking them? Two Western Washington families on-the-go shared with Q13's Marni Hughes how they make it work and what the kids think.

It's Monday afternoon at the Tonkin House in Bellevue and mom Kylee Tonkin is directing traffic.  With five kids, it's often hectic and there's lots to keep track of.

"We're just trying to play sports that we love and give them the opportunities to do that," said Kylee.  "I just don't want to be sports-centric.  I want balance when we can."

Like a lot of kids these days, the Tonkins are involved in a variety of sports and activities throughout the year, including soccer, softball, football, basketball, piano, golf and swimming to name a few.

"They have to choose something because we can't be inactive," said Kylee.

For Kylee, making it work means leaning on family and friends, and finding opportunities throughout the day to connect with her crew.  She admits a lot of her afternoons are spent in the car driving between activities, but says that's a treasured time she gets to hear about her kids days.

The kids say they enjoy their sports and activities because they get to be active, see their friends and be competitive.  They also enjoy rooting each other on and seeing familiar friends and family in the crowd cheering them on as well.

"I like when my grandparents come to my games," said Ryder Tonkin.

But what about balance for growing families at a time when kids seem busier than past generations?

A 2018 study of parents found 4 to 7 year olds spend 4 to 7 hours a week participating in after-school activities.  For some kids, it's as much as 10 to 12 hours.

Research has shown packing too much into kids schedules can be overwhelming and lead to stress and anxiety, but data also suggests being busy has benefits.

"Kids get a lot out of being in structured activities," said Liliana Lengua, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington.  "They get an opportunity to develop skills, they might have social interaction in those, they develop a lot of confidence, you learn a lot about responsibility."

The key, according to the experts, is striking the right balance for your family and situation.

"If children are reacting to having all these things in their schedules with distress, they're feeling overwhelmed, they're emotional, parents could really be looking at all the things going on in a child's life," said Lengua.

The Tonkin kids says they like their busy schedule, but when asked, they say they wouldn't want to add anything else to their plate.  A response that surprised their mom.

"That's a good gut check," said Kylee.

Across town, mom Jackie Lang picks up her two daughters from an afternoon running program. The Lang kids, Hailey, Andrew and Greta are also juggling a lot.

"I have something every day of the week except the weekends," said Hailey Lang.

"We're about to start softball, swimming and soccer," said Greta Lang. "Right now, I'm in piano and choir."

Jackie and her husband Greg Lang agree kids seem a lot more scheduled than they remember growing up, but they see the benefits of having them involved in activities they love.

"It's easy to over-program kids," said Greg Lang.

For that reason, the Langs rely on an online calendar to see the week and month at a glance. In addition, Greg and Jackie say communication, organization and planning are critical to finding their balance. That, along with dinner as a family at least 5 nights a week.

"We all sit here, we have fun," said Jackie. "We laugh, everyone talks about the day, we share highlights and low-lights."

Like the Tonkin kids, the Lang kids like their schedules and give their parents an A-grade for planning out their activities. They also share when they feel overloaded.

"I don't like rushing, it's kind of annoying for me," said Hailey Lang.  "(But), I like all the activities that I'm doing."

Back at the Tonkin house, more high marks for mom and dad when it comes to the daily schedule.

"I would get them flowers and write a note and say good job," said Mallory Tonkin.

All 5 Tonkin kids say they love their sports and activities, but they also enjoy downtime and recharging as a family. Something mom Kylee agrees with.

"I need to be refueled and (sometimes) that means close the doors and just be us," said Kylee. "I'm going to miss this time. This is a privilege.  There's going to be a day I wish we had games to go to and I'm going to miss them."

The non-profit The Family Center offers guidance to families raising kids.  It suggests when planning activities, it's important to:

  • Talk about the commitment
  • Encourage kids to prioritize their choices
  • Create a family calendar
  • Hold weekly family meetings to share and give feedback
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