The University Record, June 17, 2002

Study asks why parents and children are always so busy

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

As the school year draws to a close and the pace of activities quickens for millions of American children and their road-weary parents, the question is: who’s driving whom? Are parents pushing their children to participate in a growing number of activities, or are the kids themselves setting the frenetic pace of contemporary family life?

“The parents we studied weren’t pushing their children to be involved, or over-scheduling them against their wishes,” says Janet Dunn, an anthropology research fellow at the Institute for Social Research (ISR). “It was the children, for the most part, who asked their parents if they could be involved, after hearing about activities at school or from friends.”

For the study, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and presented May 10 in Atlanta, Dunn and colleagues at the ISR Center for the Ethnography of Everyday Life conducted an in-depth study of 23 middle-class, mostly two-parent families in a small Midwestern town. Dunn interviewed at least one of the parents and one of their children age 9–12, and also spent time observing both the children and their parents at school and in the community at large.

While a few of the children interviewed were involved in just one or two extracurricular activities, most of them participated in several, including Girl or Boy Scouts; after-school sports and music programs; religious education classes; the school safety program; and private swimming, dance, gymnastics, karate, music or art lessons.

While the immediate rewards of participation are the major focus of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade children, Dunn found that busy parents say yes to these activity requests for reasons beyond the obvious wish to please their kids and help them have fun. “Parents believe that children’s involvement in any activity has an array of long-term benefits,” she says. “These include developing a suite of skills that parents feel are best learned outside the home, including the development of social skills, discipline, and a sense of responsibility and of teamwork.”

Some parents also used after-school activities to identify the types of activities their children were good at, or to reinforce and expand emerging talents and abilities, Dunn found. “Though conscious of never wanting to push their children into activities that did not interest them, parents nonetheless encouraged and supported children’s participation. Most believe that involvement in any activity is better for children than just sitting around and watching television.”

This “ideology of involvement” is supported and reinforced by teachers, who also place a high value on children’s extracurricular activities. It also applies to the parents themselves, Dunn found. In addition to driving children to activities, parents felt that their responsibilities included being present at games, performances and award ceremonies, and serving as leaders, coaches and organizers.

Dunn’s collaborators include David A. Kinney of Central Michigan University and Sandra L. Hofferth at the University of Maryland.