My 7-year-old niece burst into tears the other afternoon on her way to Tuesday piano, which could just as well have been Wednesday tae kwon don or Thursday Girl Scouts.
"I never have time to play anymore!" she wailed to her mother.
My own 7-year-old son has piano on Monday, math club and baseball practice on Tuesday, chess club on Wednesday, a second baseball practice on Saturday and choir on Sunday morning.
"I sure am busy," my son muttered to nobody in particular, as he stood in the middle of the kitchen one morning.
We parents today spend our "free" time, not to mention "excess" cash, carting kids to events, activities, lessons and tournaments they might not need, or even want.
So why don't we just pull the emergency plug on the treadmill?
I'll give you one theory:
Running from one activity to the next is what everybody else does. I can't choose not to play along. My child won't measure up. My child won't fit in. My child will join a drug cartel.
Perhaps worst of all, my child won't be competitive when it comes time to get into a good college.
I look at my 10th-grader and his peers, who are two years away from high school graduation, and I see very clearly what we're up against.
As he's picking and choosing fun, interesting activities to fill his time, I've got one eye on his college application, which had better be competitive if he's going to get into a good college. Even more pathetic, I'm thinking about that scholarship he's got to get, since God knows we won't be able to pay the bill.
But what does that have to do with a second-grader playing soccer?
Any parent who's ever watched a pre-teen try out for a middle-school sport he's never played, knows the heartbreaking result: He who snoozes, loses. A child who waits til eighth-grade to pick up the violin is not going to be chosen to play in a high school orchestra full of kids who started Suzuki at age 4.
Early activities are connected to later activities are connected to a good college resume are connected to a good college -- and possibly a scholarship -- are connected to a good job are connected to a good life.
Call this zany mommy logic. Judith Warner, journalist and author of "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety" hints that this kind of thinking is rampant among parents today. We are living in an era of "high anxiety," when phrases like "job security" and "middle-class entitlements" are no longer found in the Dictionary of American Economics, but "out-of-reach college tuition costs" certainly are. This prevailing trend, which more than likely will not disappear without major economic reform, began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Warner writes in her New York Times bestseller.
"More and more professions were operating on a kind of 'star system' whereby a handful of people earned astronomical sums, while their peers looked on and drooled," writes Warner. "And since 'top' firms would only hire 'top' people, who could help them maintain their 'star' billing to clients, the need to get into 'name' colleges became all the more desperate."
"Hence the importance of tutoring, athletics, Ritalin, and occupational therapy in elementary school," says Warner. "You had to play the game. You couldn't opt out. Because to do so...was to put the future security of your family at risk."
Clearly, some level of activity is necessary for a child's well-being. Children need to exercise. They need to learn responsibility for the community and an appreciation for the arts. A child who spends his time involved with healthy activities isn't spending his time getting somebody pregnant.
But finding, and then walking, the line between a healthy level of activities and an unhealthy level is the ultimate challenge for today's parents. Finding and then walking the line between being responsive to the realities of the world today and letting your children be a child -- not to mention giving the Mommy van a rest -- is the real work of parenting today.
To my sister's credit, she supported her daughter's decision to drop piano.
As for me, I ask my children on a regular basis if they feel too busy.
When they answer in the affirmative, or when they show signs of stress, we sit down and talk about whether something needs to go.
In the meanwhile, we run.
And, even as I've got my hand poised just above the emergency plug, we will keep running.
Because everybody else is. Because I don't see any other options. Because, as a modern-day mother with a responsibility to her children and their future, I'm afraid to do anything else.
Knight Ridder Newspapers