The Problem--Or Non-Problem of Overscheduled Youth

Originally published February 2004.

Something happened in the 1980s which forever changed the schedules of teenagers.  Several studies were done that surmised in a nutshell that idle teens led to juvenile delinquency, particularly teens who were idle during the 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. hours.  The term latchkey was coined and became part of normal vocabulary.  Parents cried out for something to be done. 

At this point the parents should have collectively said, "This is my child, I will fix this."  But they were already beaten down by authorities on children (including youth pastors) who didn't affirm them as parents.  They felt it was better for them to be affirmed at their long work hours than to take the responsibility for their children.

The parental cries for something to be done were met.  Schools offered more afterschool clubs including Bible clubs.  Park authorities started their own sports leagues to fill the need for those who couldn't make the school teams.  (Both schools and park authorities received government funding to do so.)   Other community organizations sprang up to fill the holes which were left (all with good intentions).  Soon sport leagues and other extracurricular activities were created for those as young as 5 (or younger) to start them out right for future possibilities.  Soccer moms and minivan taxies became the power group.  College and scholarship applications grew to having these extracurricular activities define better who gets in or not. 

Group wrote up this little blurb about what's been going on: "Two decades ago sports were all about kids learning important life lessons from winning and losing.  Today sport teams resemble college or professional programs, with lucrative scholarships and pro contracts on the line--as a result, parents may ramp up the pressure to win.

"Two decades ago students played two sports, just for fun, and took summers off.  Today students are pressured to specialize in a sport early on, forcing them to commit to a rigorous schedule of camps, clinics, personal instruction, and traveling club teams.

"Two decades ago fathers were tied to their workplaces and often couldn't show up to all their kids' sports activities.  Today freed by flex time and cell phones, fathers are determined to manage their kids' participation and offer their expert advice at every contest.

"Two decades ago parents respected coaches and referees and rarely took them to task.  Today some parents spend the entire contest patrolling the sideline, red-faced and bellowing insults and orders at coaches, referees, and even their own kids.

"Two decades ago a lot of sports contests were organized by kids themselves in empty fields and cul-de-sacs.  Today all contests are organized and supervised by adults, and parents spend thousands of dollars for club team memberships, travel costs, equipment, uniforms, and even web sites that tout their "phenom's" scholarship-worthy stats."  (Group, May 6, 2003)

The result: overscheduled and stressed youth.  Or as Time wrote about, "Families started down this road back in the 1980s when sociologists said structured activities would prevent juvenile delinquency and keep kids safe.  At the same time, globalization was heating up, and education experts felt that American schoolchildren needed to work harder to compete.  The result: a cottage industry of organized after-school pursuits--lessons and tutors and clubs and teams--to babysit and enrich.  Then, thanks to overzealous parents, things got out of hand, says William Doherty, a University of Minnesota professor of marriage and family therapy.  ‘Adult notions of hypercompetition and overscheduling have created a culture of parenting that's more akin to product development, and it's robbing families of time together,' he theorizes, adding, ‘Frantic families equal fragile families.'"  (Time, October 27, 2003)

Where was the Church during this time?  Still meeting on Wednesday nights and getting angry at an anonymous enemy for taking away the sacred church night.  Others caught a vision of the opportunity and adjusted their schedules but grew angry and/or frustrated when the weekends also got invaded by these activities.  A rare few actually adapted their program to those valuable hours of 3 to 6 p.m.  Where does it say that all youth group meetings must be at night? 

Today many youth pastors still get mad about a youth having to choose something in his/her schedule over youth group.  A few years back Group's cover was a picture of a high school with the caption "Our Enemy."  Even though we love high school students and thus high schools for the plethora of students there, when it comes to scheduling the school can be our enemy.  But not for me.

For one, until we as a church give out college scholarships or practically help fatten a college application, I want to encourage such achievements.  Plus it gives me plenty of opportunities to teach them WWJD in all of these situations.  Students learn that faith happens outside of the church walls.


Another reason is that the spiritual teaching of the youth is the parents' responsibility.  The youth ministry and I are an extension of them and a resource.  If a parent chooses that their child should play at the soccer tournament over the youth retreat, I trust the parent's decision because they answer to God, not I.  Confession, I do get frustrated when youth do miss a youth retreat for a soccer tournament because I put so much prayer and work into the event and know it would benefit them.  But I recognize that as more me-centered and not worth too much ire.  Not all ministry happening that weekend is happening on that retreat.

I also provide plenty of resources to the parents, such as Moms & Pops Stuff, to help them do their responsibility better.  It's easier to trust the parents with their responsibility when I'm doing everything I can to encourage the parents.

Another reason is that extracurricular activities mostly involve parents in one way or another.  They spectate, help fundraise, chaperone, and/or coach.  I want to encourage such active participation by parents in their children's lives.

For some youth those art classes or the football field is their lifeline through adolescence.  It is where they find peace, acceptance, and purpose.  Youth group can't offer that for everyone but I can teach them to take their faith with them to such lifelines. 

I have also learned to use the time I do get, the time that is purposely scheduled in, more wisely.  When I have their presence, I teach about faith which is why they are at church and I make sure that something corny does not take up their time.

Not every youth is so overscheduled.  As a whole a lot of church youth are because they have active parents in their lives who give them such opportunities.  But there are plenty of other youth who only show initiative while playing video games or who aspire to have that street/thug life or who find youth group to be their lifeline.  It is those latter youth we often don't complain about.  They are who keep us in this role.  And there are plenty of other youth to chase after who are not overscheduled.  Chase after them with all your heart.  They need you to.