All Work, Less Play Is the Burden of Kids Today

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Peer into an American child’s hectic world and you may very well see yourself.

If you can catch one at rest, she will probably be sacked out in the flickering light of the TV, pooped after a long day at school or day care and, yes, lengthening hours of homework.

She will have logged about an hour of housework--hard to believe, perhaps, because the house will probably still be a mess.

And what with soccer practice, dance classes and tutoring sessions, there won’t be a lot of time for deep conversation with Mom, Dad or the siblings: In the course of an average week, a child 3 to 12 years of age will spend just 34 minutes in “household conversation,” less than half the time kids spent in 1981 shooting the breeze with the family.


Call it the pint-sized time crunch. For years, researchers have chronicled the changes in the lives of American adults as they rush around, work long hours and spend a growing portion of their free time tubing out. Now, according to a study to be released today by the University of Michigan, their kids are doing the same.

Sandra Hofferth, one of the authors of the landmark 30-year study, says the under-13 set is more programmed today than at any time since she started studying them 21 years ago. They spend more time in organized sports--on average, about 4 1/2 hours per week--than they did in 1981 but much less time just playing or being outdoors. On weekdays, they log an average of about six hours a day at school--a boost of almost two hours over 1981 levels, due largely to surging preschool attendance.

And for parents fighting a losing battle with dust balls, get this: Today’s grade-schooler spends an average of nearly six hours a week, twice as much time as the typical kid in 1981, doing housework. Some of that, it would appear, helps make up for the decline in parental housekeeping, a trend chronicled by another study out this month.

This is the new “supercharged family” that marketers pitch cars to, the households that buy books like Stephen R. Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families.”

They’re families like the Robinsons, Linda and Michael, whose 5- and 7-year-old children have never complained of boredom or wondered aloud what they should do next.

“I sometimes wonder if their pace is a little too fast. It sometimes seems a little overloaded,” says 40-year-old Linda Robinson, who studies accounting and works part time as a school secretary in El Segundo. After shuttling daughter Jamie and son Rhys through a day jammed with activity, Robinson observed recently, “I don’t know whose lives are busier, the parents’ or the children’s!”


For the most part, you can chalk up the dramatic changes in children’s lives to their mothers’ growing presence in the workplace, say experts. Whether married to a wage-earning dad or supporting a family on their own, about 70% of mothers with children 12 and younger are employed full or part time.

That has touched off a scramble to enroll children in structured activities ranging from after-school athletic leagues to music lessons to computer clubs. And experts say even children of stay-at-home moms have become busy kiddies. So many of their friends are enrolled in organized activities, there aren’t many kids left on the block to play marbles or ride a bike with. And rare is the neighborhood where parents now feel they can send their children out to play, reassured that the kids will be watched up and down the street by familiar neighbors at home during the day.

In all, free time, which represented 40% of a child’s weekday hours in 1981, had shrunk to 25% by 1997, according to the study. And that wasn’t all fun time either: Into that six hours, kids fit studying (up slightly from 1981), housework (way up) and jobs like paper routes and baby-sitting. Reading for pleasure commanded just 77 minutes per week for the average child.

With all the time-squeezing, kids under 13 are actually watching a little less television, Hofferth’s study found. The average child now spends about 17 minutes less a day glued to the set than he or she did in 1981. But kids 3 to 12 still spend about 13 hours per week tubing. And just as in 1981, that’s still about a quarter of their free time.

Even the time for eating has gotten squeezed, according to the study, which measured how children across the ethnic and income spectrum spend their time and whether they flourish at school and at home. During the week, kids under 13 spent about 15 minutes less a day at meals than they did in 1981.

For Jamie and Rhys Robinson, the time squeeze is part of a life that is filled with activity, much of it dictated by school, sports and their parents’ schedules. Both kids spend time in after-school care a couple of days a week, and Rhys’ soccer team meets for practice twice during the week, with games on weekends. Many afternoons, Jamie, a kindergartner, runs a host of errands with her mom, and on weekends the two children like to help with yardwork.


Beyond that, the children make regular trips to the library--both because it’s fun and because their school dictates a book-reading regimen that prescribes almost a book a day. Between reading, television, some computer games and homework (which even kindergartner Jamie has), the evenings disappear without a trace.

Linda Robinson says she tried this summer to institute a special night for a family dinner in the dining room--with the TV extinguished and time for family discussion. “That worked for a while,” she chuckles, but got scuttled once school and soccer season began and things got hectic.

Mrs. Robinson can’t help comparing her children’s lives to her own youth. After 7-year-old Rhys got a bicycle for Christmas, he wanted to ride it every day after school. It was the sort of open-ended activity on which she had spent countless hours as a child in Australia. But for Rhys, she laments, there just wasn’t time for that.

At the same time, Robinson also sees her children’s lives as much fuller and more exciting than her own childhood, with an endless menu of activities from which she wishes she could have chosen. “I think a slower pace would be nice, but I also like the fact that they have a lot of opportunities that keep them active.”

Ellen Galinsky, president of the New York-based Families and Work Institute, cautions that those reading the University of Michigan findings should not necessarily jump to the conclusion that as kids have become busier, their lives have gotten worse. But her interviews with hundreds of children across the the country to research a forthcoming book have led her to a different conclusion.

“I think the thing we all worry about is that kids will grow up too fast, that they won’t have time to explore, to try things and see what they like. But we have the nostalgic notion of 40 years ago--a brief moment in history. Kids don’t.”


Studies back her conclusion that things may not be as bad as parents fear. Research has consistently shown that even as mothers have left home for the work force, the amount of time that parents spend with children has remained pretty constant. Although Hofferth did not measure the time parents spent with kids in 1981, she found that in 1997 they spent an average of 17 hours per week directly talking to, working with and playing with their young children.

At the same time, Hofferth’s study offers warning signs in its findings that parents show less affection toward and engage in less conversation with their children as they progress through their grade-school years.

All of this, say experts like Hofferth, suggests that it is not just time but the quality and warmth of the time spent with kids--and what you do in that time--that counts. Hofferth found that time spent reading with children led to measurably higher levels on tests of verbal ability, for instance. And for harried parents who have let the housework slip, here’s another tip from Hofferth’s study: When performed with parents, home activities--including housework--appear to boost children’s performance on tests of applied mathematical ability.

What could be better for families intent on becoming “highly effective?” Clean those closets, talk to your child and improve her mathematical skills--all at the same time.

But then, which category would you log that time under?


How Kids Spend Time

Time spent on weekly activities of American children ages 3-12, in hours:


1981: 21:22

1997: 29:34


Play time

1981: 15:54

1997: 12:05



1981: 15:12

1997: 13:17



1981: 2:20

1997: 4:20


Household work

1981: 2:27

1997: 5:50



1981: 2:26

1997: 1:19



1981: 1:25

1997: 2:14


Household conversation

1981: 1:12

1997: 0:34