Ready, Set, Relax!

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CALLING TIME OUT: Donna Olsen kicks back by shooting hoops with her daughter Renee and her son Scott at home in Ridgewood N.J.

A few weeks ago, after picking up her daughter Renee from school, Donna Olsen committed an act of soccer-mom heresy. Instead of heading to soccer practice, Olsen drove Renee, 10, to the Bookends bookstore in Ridgewood, N.J., where they whiled away 2 1/2 hours listening to Lemony Snicket — Renee's favorite author — read from his new book and lingered for an autograph and a chat with the writer afterward. Then, instead of snatching a fast-food dinner from a drive-through window so they could rush off to their next activity, they drove home and, joined by Renee's older brother Scott, leisurely cooked burgers on the family grill. "She's only 10, and there are plenty more years left for soccer," explains Olsen, "but not another opportunity to meet Lemony Snicket."

Like moms and dads everywhere, Olsen and other Ridgewood parents are worn out from dragging their kids through the frenzied after-school ritual of dinners on the go and crosstown SUV shuttle runs among practices, competitions, private lessons and club meetings. Unlike most parents, however, the folks in Ridgewood decided to do something about the situation. Two years ago, leaders in this affluent community launched Ready, Set, Relax!, a citywide initiative that encouraged frazzled families to put down some speed bumps in their fast-paced lives. Before Ready, Set, Relax!, Donna Olsen says, "I might not have made the choice to skip soccer practice."

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Years of multitasking and workaholism have left Americans across the economic and geographic spectrum feeling exhausted. In his book Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life, journalist Joe Robinson offers both anecdotal and statistical evidence of rising incidences of burnout, depression and divorce caused by overwork as 80% of men and 62% of women put in more than 40 hours a week on the job. An August 2003 poll for the Center for a New American Dream, an organization based in Takoma Park, Md., that focuses on quality-of-life issues, revealed that although 60% of Americans felt pressure to work too much, more than 80% wished for more family time and that 52% of them would take less money to get it.

"Americans are reaching a breaking point," says John de Graaf, one of the authors of Affluenza, a book that criticizes materialism and overconsumption. What the country needs, he says, is a day off. So he has organized the first National Take Back Your Time Day, scheduled for Oct. 24. The idea — really a nationwide version of the Ridgewood initiative — is for people to take time out to protest what de Graaf and his cohort see as "an epidemic of overwork and overscheduling threatening communities and families." Events ranging from forums on how to create a society that operates at a slower pace with fewer time pressures to parties extolling the virtues of a simplified life have been planned in 60 cities, including Boston, Seattle and Beverly Hills, Calif.

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 baby-sit 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."

That message stirred up parents in the Twin Cities suburb of Wayzata, Minn., when Doherty lectured there five years ago. His talk sparked a communitywide initiative called Putting Family First. One project: a book, written by Doherty and coalition organizer Barbara Carlson, filled with such advice as making family vacations a priority and strategies for finding time to talk with kids about their day. The group also launched a website and published a Consumer Reports — style guide to local after-school activities, providing analyses of the time and travel demands involved in pursuing each undertaking — not exactly a laid-back approach to overscheduling, but at least a nod in that direction. Nearly 5,000 families in the surrounding eight-city area snapped up copies.

Two years ago, the Wayzata prescriptions caught the eye of Marcia Marra, a busy mother of three in Ridgewood who works part-time for a local family-services agency. In professional and personal conversations, Marra had been hearing more and more complaints from soccer-and-ballet moms about their hectic, joyless lives, and she was having similar misgivings herself. With the backing of her boss, she convened a meeting of parents, clergy and community leaders. They shared their alarm over the growing numbers of elementary students wearing knee braces because of injured and overused limbs, the burnout among high school students who wanted no part of varsity athletics and the homework load that forced schoolkids of all ages to lug backpacks heavy with books. "We're creating a generation that's overscheduled by parents, overtested by teachers and overtrained by coaches," Garland Allen, director of wellness for Ridgewood schools, told the attendees.

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