Nikhil Iyer is a typical nine-year-old in Hyderabad. His iPad is his best friend and his younger sister, his best “frenemy”. What sets him apart from his peers is that Iyer is not being groomed for greatness. After school, while Iyer’s classmates attend classes in sports, music, art and chess, sometimes two back-to-back activities a day, his parents have decided it’s enough for him to enjoy a game of football when he feels like it. He doesn’t need to be a champion, he just needs to have fun.

“We didn’t want to push too many activities too early for him,” said Subbu Parameswaran, Iyer’s father, who heads an NGO called the Learning Curve Life Skills Foundation, which develops age-appropriate life skills for underprivileged children. “In ten months, if he says he is done with football, then that’s fine too.”

Bengaluru-based Swati Sharma, mother of seven-year-old Akrit, agrees. One year ago, Sharma ferried Akrit from one class to another, every day of the week until she noticed he would be slumped in his chair, asleep by dinner time. “He was just too tired,” she said. “Being generally compliant, he never protested.” Sharma decided to ease her son’s workload, and now Akrit attends a single after-school class in art. It’s a subject that comes with a flexible schedule.

The Iyers and Sharmas are part of a growing community of parents who are choosing to let their children mono-task, or do one thing at a time. If it seems too obvious to be a movement, one need only consider the lives of Nikhil and Akrit’s adult counterparts. A typical workday for almost any upper-middle class adult today consists of working on multiple projects, while checking emails, scheduling and attending meetings (all the while, listening to music and updating each other on social media). Children especially, but also adults, need to make a concerted effort to see one task through to its logical conclusion before attempting another.

Subbu Parameswaran's children hanging out.

Training for the rat race

In India, where a burgeoning middle class sets aspirations for its children very high, childhood can feel like being a hamster-on-a-wheel, where parents schedule various activities and classes to help kids stay ahead of their peers.

VV Kumaresan, who runs Artfullan, art academy, in Chennai, says that parents often ask him why he doesn’t organise or train kids for competitions.

“My classes are the opposite of that,” he said, with a laugh. “They are just a no-pressure place for kids to express themselves. Unfortunately, the pace seems too slow for some parents.”

Srividhya Prasanna, mother of six-year-old Sakthi, said she sometimes feels her friends who have enrolled their kids in multiple classes are trying to create “super kids”.

“The need to be the best at everything is what drives these activities,” she said. “So the child has to have a public performance if she is in a dance class, or a show if she is in an art class. Multiply that pressure with the number of activities, and you get the idea.”

All this rushing from one activity to another comes at a price, warn experts. A 2016 study of adults who work in front of a computer, showed that multitasking increases distraction. Multi-tasking or more accurately, task switching means that each switch between tasks – for instance, between music and art – depletes neural power and the brain’s ability to focus. By the end of the day, disproportionate mental and physical fatigue sets in.

Children try their hands at hitting the bull’s eye during an archery workshop at Arjuna Sports Academy in Dadar. Credit: Pratik Chorge/HT Photo

“If the kids are constantly switching without break, it will deplete their energy,” said Abiramika Ravivarman, life and parenting coach, who runs Green Minds Center for sustainable life skills in Chennai. “And not in a good way. Their attention span decreases in tune with that switching.”

In their 2001 book titled The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap, Dr Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise argue that enrolling children in many scheduled activities keeps them from turning into confident, self-reliant adults, and might also lead to ADD, ADHD and depression.

Starting young

Most parents start their children young so that the child reaches a certain level of proficiency in extra-curricular activities before high school, when academics take center stage. The logic is that eventually, a great or average academic track record, when combined with exceptional extra-curriculars can ensure admission to good colleges, lead to better jobs and bigger salaries

But starting younger is not always a good idea, according to Parimal Pandit, clinical psychologist and programme director for counselling and assessment at V-Excel Educational Trust, Chennai. “Children should be physically and mentally ready to start the activities they are doing,” she said, emphasising that the neural pathways and fine motor skills must be developed before certain activities can begin. “A child who is five may not be ready for chess classes. You must give time for the development of skills to happen naturally.”

Many parents agree with the concept of minimal scheduled classes for kids, but say it is logistically impossible.

Prasanna, a working mother, says she would rather not send her child to any class, but sees no option. “My intention is not to make her a superkid but [I do it] only because I am helpless to engage her in any other way,” she said.

A child makes her move while learning chess during a summer camp at Bal Bhavan, in Mumbai. Photo credit: Pratik Chorge/HT Photo

Carefully selecting activities helps to some extent, as does simply letting children be, and integrating them into their parents’ lives.

“We’ve force-fitted children’s lives to our schedule, albeit one that we think is beneficial for them,” said Parameswaran. “How does a child even enjoy what she is doing when there are a dozen things to do?”

The most important lesson, it appears, is to allow children to be bored. Boredom allows free and creative thinking, self-reflection and observation.

“Very few children nowadays can be joyful – simply be in a park, watching a butterfly,” Pandit said. “They constantly want something, and quick. They don’t see a plant growing, life growing. There is no connection to nature.” To simply keep a child engaged, she said, activities such as helping out in the kitchen or garden are sufficient. A constant cycle of classrooms and competition produce undue stress.

Sharma agrees. The day she decided to cut all of Akrit’s classes, she said, was a weight off her shoulders. “I can only imagine how great it must have been for him.”

Monika Chaudhary's son plays cricket.