I'll share what got me thinking about this and I'll sum it up with general thoughts and some opinions on college admissions.
Just this last Saturday these were the demands put on my kids (aged 14 and 11):
The town we live in urged and invited citizens to join in an Earth Day litter clean up. A giant project and community celebration for participants was planned. We were invited as residents. Due to a conflict, we declined. However the activity was also broken into smaller pieces organized by organizations my kids participate in, so...
Older son's sport team had their own group to do community service as part of the town's Earth Day project. So, a sport team is no longer just a sport team now the sport team also does community service, in 2012. Older son declined. Why? Read on.
Older son participated in a huge children's festival held in the next town as a representative of his FIRST Robotics team. He put in 11 hours of community service that day. As is the ideal of FIRST Robotics, the participants are not just to actually do robotics and compete they also are supposed to reach out to the community to educate and inspire others, especially younger kids. (Seems to me in the 1970s and prior such a notion was unheard of. Times have changed.)
Both older son and younger son were invited by their Boy Scout Troop in our own town to do Earth Day litter clean up in the next town over as part of that town's full day cleanup which focused on trash clean-up of wilderness areas, waterways, river banks and such. The environmental connection must have been what the Boy Scout Troop leadership felt made it a superior project to the one being conducted in the town that the Troop operates in. Had they done the event in our town we would have felt we killed two birds with one stone and that we'd helped our own town, but that's not how it shook out. Due to the Robotics Team conflict, older son declined. Younger son did the community service project and put in 6 hours. T
he Robotics Team continued practicing for upcoming competitions that day but older son could not help due to him being at the other Robotics Team community service project.
Oh, and the Boy Scout Troop also had a full weekend camping trip, so many of the Scouts could not do the community service project. The camping trip focused on helping brand new Scouts learn Scout skills, so my kids were told to not attend. Their original plan was to attend the camping trip, especially since my older son has a leadership role and I thought he was needed there to do that. At least they were off the hook for that and not feeling they were shirking responsibilities.
Meanwhile in personal family matters, we'd just returned from six days out of state the night before and needed to unpack, do laundry, and all the other stuff a family does when they return home. However that was on the back burner while the kids did community service. (Kids have a real life outside of their extra-curricular activities to live. Also parents have stuff to do which gets impeded by bringing their kids here, there and yonder for all these appointments.)
Other conflicts upcoming this week and later this month are an only three times a season sport competition on the same day as World Championships for FIRST Robotics. I felt a World Championship in an academic area of my son's career interest trumped a regional sports competition for a first year athlete in a sport (that is not going to be his career), but the decision was not made lightly as my son's absence means his quad cannot row and they'll have to break up into doubles and a single.
A Scout leadership meeting was just announced with 36 hours’ notice that overlaps with both a Regional FIRST Robotics competition and sports practice. I'd thought the regional robotics competition trumped the sport practice that night but now due to inclement weather they postponed the sport team photo and individual athlete photo shoot to that day. So now he's leaving the competition practice day (non-critical) early for the team photo and sport practice then leaving practice early to get to the Scout leadership meeting.
Due to my older son not being enrolled in the public school and legal issues regarding liability insurance I have to drive my son to and from the Robotics competition (through rush hour both ways) which means my younger son will miss out on attending his sport practice two times this week.
Lest you think we do a lot here is a list. It doesn't seem like a lot to me.
Younger son Homeschool lessons at home
Boy Scouts, year round general attendance
Boy Scout minor leadership position January - June 2012
sport: spring season lacrosse clinic (not a travel team),
twice a week attended church worship with parents August through March,
once a week attending youth church service starting in April with his age mates, once a week
Homeschool lessons at home
Boy Scouts, year round Boy Scout major leadership position January - June 2012
Sport team, 3 season participation, novice level (much less practice than the Varsity team)
FIRST Robotics team, most work done early January - end of April 2012
attending church worship with parents on Sundays, once a week
People (kids included) also have a life outside of learning (school or homeschool) and extracurricular activities.
Their lives include things like health and wellness.
This year my older son has gone through almost 40 half day visits for treatment for Lyme Disease related brain injury neurological problems from October through February. We thought he was done with medical treatments for this academic year, until he had to have his tonsils and adenoids removed in March. He had a full 14 day recovery time which impeded both his academics, sports, and all other extra-curricular activities. I scheduled that around spring break week so his spring break was spent drinking liquids and laying down watching TV resting. This week was his first week back at full participation with everything.
Given all that has happened in just this last week I ask myself why we do what we do. Yes, my kids want to do all these things and some things they need to do. Yet when the activities are so time consuming, including with extra things like a sport team doing litter clean-up for community service, and Boy Scouts also adding in community service, and the church asking for community service, and the FIRST Robotics team doing community service, and parties and social events related to these activities, on top of all the normal stuff that group does, you wind up with very little free time as a family.
So why bother, or how much is enough to do an activity thoroughly?
When I compare what my kids to do what other families do, we seem to do a smaller number of things but we participate more regularly or thoroughly.
Who is evaluating us for what we do? The colleges are, that's who. They are going to evaluate my children's homeschooling experience and try to figure out who they are. However I want to underscore that my kids do nothing for transcript padding.
The core academic content and the standardized tests are influenced by what the colleges want only as a means to an end so my kids can pursue the career path of their choice. Truly their extra-curricular activities are things that represent their interests and passions.
Regarding the extra-curriculars and college admissions, I am reminded of a session I attended at MIT ESP parent program in November 2011, where a college admissions officer for University of Chicago spoke on "There are only 24 hours in a day and other things college admissions officers know". She didn't really ever get to that specific issue to acknowledge that the impression is they want too much, more than kids can do. The closest she came was when she said these things.
These are from my copious notes:
Want to see--- Consistency: keep doing the activity over time
Obligation – often too much or too little is seen in applicants
Have an “articulated passion”: proof the student found a way to explore their passion, especially if they had to rely on self to fulfill their passion, even if it was just going to the library to read about something school wasn’t teaching them or watching documentaries on TV at a minimum, or doing whatever it is they care about that they take the initiative on.
(Earlier in the lecture the desire for knowing one's own self and knowing one's passion and doing things to stoke that fire was stated as highly desired.
The student must also be able to clearly articulate those things if asked in an interview and they must come through clearly in any essays on the college application.)
Want depthThe next thing she said was to outline what else the student does with their time which was, for example, taking care of a sick family member, going through major changes such as a move, medical conditions that impeded them, or if they work a part-time job. These speak to a person's life outside of school and life outside of formal extra-curricular activities done with groups or teams.
In thinking about my children's passions as well as basic academic learning and cultivating one's spiritual life, it seems that they are following their passions. At the same time, their lives are overflowing with abundance to the point where it starts to feel like the organizations they work with are asking too much to the point where consistent, thorough, and complete participation is impossible if a teen does more than just one extra-curricular activity. Heck, even church conflicts with one extra-curricular activity, often. The mission trip is the same one week in the summer as the one week of Boy Scout summer camp. Youth group weekend retreat is run on the same weekend as a Boy Scout camping trip with the Troop, so forth and so on.
You can't be in two places at one time!
Regarding my homeschool high school freshman's schedule and working with teams filled mostly with schooled kids I can see where the divide between academically focused student and the student athlete occurs. It is impossible to give 100% to a sport if you do an extra-curricular activity such as FIRST Robotics team. Thus the kids are either on a path of "jock" or "science geek". This is how it happens! This is how kids are pigeon-holed and classified! It happens from within the schools and teams themselves! I never realized this before. I thought those labels were created by school kids and applied to each other. The schools and various teams actually create the environment where it's almost impossible to be both a drama kid and a sport kid and an academic competition team kid at the same time. Thus the desire to be well rounded is almost impossible.
I'd like to think that a teen can both exercise and be in shape and be on a sport team and be interested in science and technology and do work with a robotics team that does activities that do not happen in the school (or homeschool) science classroom. However I am now doubtful.
Not being able to do a variety of things and the fear of looking like you don't do enough leads some kids to sign up to do too much then to hardly do any of it. Coaches and leaders of groups know who the kids are that never attend even 50% of the time. Those are the transcript padders. They help fuel this problem!
I know what matters most is what our kids do and what they learn in the process. The kid who barely attends doesn't learn what the kid who was there all the time learned. To win sports competitions, everyone has to practice a certain amount, perhaps more than they thought, and nutrition matters, and sleep, too. Lots goes into finding success if one is looking to win medals and get accolades.
You may be wondering if I'm the one doing the pushing. Everything my kids do comes from within them: they drive it. We also apply our family values regarding responsibility, perseverance, and diligence such as encouraging them to stick an activity out until the season is over rather than quitting mid-season. Sometimes that turned around: after the initial hurdle was over they were happy again and were glad to not have quit and continued on the next year.
As parents, my husband and I want our kids to be responsible and to fulfill their obligations and to fully experience things by having full or nearly full participation. Sometimes complete participation is just impossible such as when a kid is asked to be in two or three places at the same exact time.
Sometimes the organizations are flexible, since every kid is experiencing this, especially when they've added on these "extra" things that are not the core of the program. However other times there is no tolerance for anything less than 100% participation. In pursuit of receiving national awards, one team my son was on had a "three absences and you're kicked off the team" policy.
The minority core of students who put in 95% or higher participation on the robotics team may be the ones responsible for the team's regional first place wins, I don't know. --- I guess what I'm trying to say are a few things.
First, I think that today, formal programs have dominated and have trickled down to very young ages: soccer at three, Little League t-ball at age four. The kid's schedules fill up at young ages and they fill up with just a few activities, or even two or one activity.
Second, the formal groups expanded to be more intense and serious. Instead of a twice a week baseball for a seventh grader, it's six times a week for an eight year old. Instead of playing in town, there are travel teams an hour or 90 minutes’ drive away. Some leagues go out of state and require hotel stays for the family or kids bunk in as a team.
Third, groups have expanded to add more social events and community service. Even the town parade is no longer watched by kids: they are all marching in it, and they are asked to march with every organization they are linked with, so they have to choose which to be with!
Fourth, it seems more competitive than ever. Everyone is doing more and everyone seems to be trying harder. The only way to get the most out of something you are learning, or in order to win awards for being the best at something you have to put in close to 100% if not giving a thing 110%. People go above and beyond: hiring nutritionists to help their junior high students get ready to be better athletes, hiring personal trainers for more coaching than the team coach can give, and hiring tutors for extra academic help, all to get an edge or a leg up on their peers.
What is the cost to all this recent expansion and the increase in intensity? A kid can only do so much. Their bodies get tired (from exercise or lack of sleep) and their minds get drained (from too much intellectual stimulation or from feeling stress due to having a too-busy schedule).
Americans know you can't do it all but they still try to do too much and they beat themselves up when they're not the best at every single thing. I think this is a pursuit to "be the best you can be" which at first seems like a great thing to try to achieve, but as I have explained here, it can be too much since even one formal group activity has changed to be excessive and with a wider breadth than focusing just on the activity.
I think that it is important to get to know oneself, to set goals aligned with the individual person's desires, and to focus and drill down to a small number of activities. I always believed that it was better to know a few things very deeply than to know a tidbit about a wide range of things. I think this applies to kid's extra-curricular activities.
In America we want kids to have a broad academic education base and to be able to read and write and do math well, traditional school is designed to give a broad liberal arts education. It is the extra-curriculars that are individualized and help develop who a person is. Extra-curricular activities (whether group, team or solo pursuits) are what make us who we are as a unique person. Even if a kid only does group activities their combination of them helps shape them: the baseball lover also is outdoorsy and enjoyed Boy Scouting for many years, the math geek on the math competition team was a chess competitor on weekends and loved running cross country and track and field.
The possibility for specialization and developing one's unique personality lies in extra-curricular activities. I want my kids to have a good primary education, academically. I want them to pursue passions and to fulfill their curiosities. I want them to be healthy physically and to be in good personal fitness.
I want them prepared for college in general terms and in academic terms. I want them to be college ready while being also mentally sane and happy people, not burned out, not having received certain grades from cheating, and not relying on prescription medications to keep them mentally stable or calmed down. Extra-curriculars are vital and important but they should not go so far as to put so much pressure on kids that they burn out or crack under the pressure.
Extra-curriculars should be done out of pure curiosity and intellectual stimulation or for fitness or for fun. They should not be done against one's will in order for transcript padding to try to appeal to college admissions officers. I pray that admissions officers can sniff out the phonies from the authentic kids.