The concept of childhood, so vital to the traditional American way of life, is changing as our world has become faster, more demanding and not as safe. Our children's blissful, carefree lives -- those magic years between toilet training and the SATs -- are often turned into whirlwinds of extracurricular activities and social pursuits. In the process, something very precious has been lost and our children are at risk of losing out on a special time of their lives.

It is natural and appropriate for parents to want their children to take advantage of experiences that will enrich and enliven their intellectual, spiritual, physical and emotional lives. Extracurricular activities provide opportunities for our children to learn valuable lessons outside of what they are already learning in the classroom. Our children have fun, families come together and we make new friends.

Research studies have pointed to the developmental benefits of specific types of extracurricular activities. For example, children who have second language instruction perform better on cognitive and verbal tests and measures of creativity and complex problem solving. Additionally, a higher level of participation in sports is correlated with a lower level of participation in risky sexual activity. Taking part in musical instruction translates into success in academic subjects like math, science and engineering.

Our challenge then, as parents, is not to decide what to provide our children, but to determine how much is too much. We view our children, proudly so, as competent to deal with any activities that come their way. We further believe that they will benefit and thrive from participating in all of it. Is it possible that our desire to provide so much enrichment and opportunity for our children has come from a need fashioned by adults, and not truly one that best suits our children?

In the early '80s, David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University, published "The Hurried Child." Elkind contends that our view of today's child as "SuperKid," capable of anything and hurried along to master all childhood milestones before puberty, has done more harm than good. He further highlights the distressing fact that American children, particularly adolescents, are not as well off today as we might think they should be. Statistics tell a story of more obesity, more poverty, more suicide, more depression, more HIV/AIDS and the highest teen pregnancy rate in Western society, coupled with lower SAT scores and an increased rate of medicating to ameliorate hyperactive behavior. Many children today are feeling the stress of their fast-paced lifestyles.

How do parents know that their child is operating in an overloaded capacity? If you feel overwhelmed by your child's schedule, then there is a strong possibility that your child is feeling overwhelmed and stressed as well. Some of the warning signs include difficulty falling asleep, restless or sleepless nights, loss of appetite, frequent whining, greater fatigue, irritability and overly angry or aggressive behavior toward other family members and friends.

A child's persistent reluctance to attend the next activity may be an indicator that his schedule is more taxing than what you originally thought he might enjoy or handle. When parents begin to take a closer look at their own, as well as their children's full schedules, and become sensitive to the signs of stress, they may realize that this is the opportunity to make positive changes. Parents should understand the important role they play in protecting their children's childhood by slowing down the pace.

One very practical approach to de-stressing your child's life is to drop one of his extracurricular activities. This solution sounds so simple, but it produces immediate results, i.e., reduced stress and renewed enthusiasm. Including your child in the process creates a wonderful opportunity to teach him how to make choices, establish priorities and learn about some of your family's values, especially that you value his personal well-being.

As your child acquires newly found "down time" and is no longer in such a hurry, what will fill his free time? Truly, having your child structure meaningful solo time is a valuable life skill. Independent play empowers children, teaches problem solving skills and provides essential time to replenish their bodies and minds.

Childhood is a time to build self-esteem, strengthen educational talents and improve social skills through positive interactions with peers and family members. Remember, your child's life will be long, but his or her childhood is not.

A licensed clinical social worker and family therapist for more than 20 years, Rose Marie Turner is the director of wellness and prevention services at Family Centers. With offices in Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan, Family Centers is a United Way, Community Fund of Darien and New Canaan Community Foundation partner agency that offers counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. For information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.