In last week's post about sports injuries a reader commented, "But how do you regulate the number of hours a kid engages in these activities? For better or worse, it's kind of up to the parents, no?" The answer to this question is, "Yes, but..."
It is true that in the US the family is recognized both legally and culturally as the institution with the most control over childhood. However, the state plays an important role in two areas--education and employment-- and it has done so for nearly a century. The state mandates that children go to school (compulsory education in this country became law in 1918) and not work more than a certain number of hours each week (federal child labor laws passed in 1938), both efforts that came out of Progressive-era politics (along with labor protections like the eight-hour work day, passed in 1916). Time spent in these domains is almost always outside of the family home, subjecting it to regulation by the law and non-relative adults.
Child performers historically faced scrutiny, though they received an exemption in the 1938 child labor laws, and this scrutiny continues today-- especially as the boundaries between entertainment, family, and work become more porous (I have written about this issue elsewhere as it relates to reality television shows). The number of hours kids can be on-set is heavily regulated and monitored by on-set advocates. Tutors are also provided to help them keep up with their studies. Earnings are also partially protected, at least until a child turns 18.
Just as the boundaries between entertainment, family, and work have blurred, so have the boundaries between education, work, and play for kids. I argue that children's afterschool activities should be seen as a new form of child labor (you can read an academic article I wrote on this topic in Childhood), which then subjects participation to regulation by the state, protecting children from overwork, physical injury, or other forms of exploitation.
Knowing there is precedent to regulate children's involvement in activities outside of the family home, what can practically be done? Given the role of the educational system we might think there is some role schools could play. However, many children who are overly involved in a particular activity-- be it chess, academic bees, performing, music, or sports-- are educated outside of the formal school system, as their families opt for homeschooling or special academies (like Spring Creek Academy in Texas or IMG Academies, which I have written about elsewhere).
The onus then falls on those who run afterschool programs. These teachers and coaches would be responsible for proving they are creating a safe environment and that they are certified to run their programs. Currently some small insurance companies that insure sports clubs, gyms, and dance studios fill the void created by the legal radio silence on this issue.
That most athletic coaches and teachers in extracurricular activities often have no formal educational credentials or certifications in their area is deeply problematic. This remains a stumbling block in legitimating many afterschool activities and should be part of any comprehensive reform of the afterschool hours and how this time should be safely spent. I will get on my blog soapbox about this particular issue-- which puts children and families at risk in a multitude of ways and hurts those teachers who are superb and dedicated to their students-- about this soon!