A new program aims to balance family life with youth sports.

Like many upper-middle-class communities, Wayzeta, Minn., is home to a plethora of youth activities that are increasingly consuming family free time. Rather than forgo sit-down meals, weekend outings and summer vacations, though, a group of parents has developed a grassroots effort called Family Life 1st, a citywide initiative calling for parents, coaches, youth directors and church leaders to help set limits on extracurricular activities.

The movement's primary target is youth sports groups. But authorities at 2,800-student Wayzeta High School, which is already strictly regulated by the Minnesota State High School League, say they also stand to gain if the program proves successful.

As the situation stands now in the Minneapolis suburb, children start playing soccer as early as age 4, and they can join a traveling basketball team in the fourth grade. "By the time they get to high school, they're not hungry anymore," says Jaime Sherwood, athletic and activities director for the Wayzeta School District. "They're tired of listening to coaches. Maybe this will put a freshness back in high school athletics. That's what we're excited about."

That excitement is contagious. Leaders of the initiative, officially launched in April, reported more than 16,000 hits at their Web site (www.familylife1st.org) during the two weeks after it went live. Supporters are quick to stress that playing sports is a positive experience for young people but that the community's preoccupation with competition has both diminished the rewards of sports and eroded quality family life.

"This is not an anti-sports thing," says William J. Doherty, organizer of Family Life 1st and a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. "This is really about balance. We are talking about scheduled hyperactivity, a problem that's hitting a nerve. In the last 15 or 20 years, something has gotten out of whack; it's what I call parenting as product development."

Wayzeta, with a population of about 6,000, is ground zero for a campaign like Family Life 1st because of the community's competitive environment, which encourages children to commit to one sport early in life and specialize in it year-round, Doherty says. Hockey practices scheduled on Thanksgiving morning and Christmas Eve are common. So are youth-league players being benched for missing a game because they attend a family member's wedding. Fifth-grade soccer matches begin at 10 p.m. on school nights, and team organizers tell parents during which two weeks of the summer they're allowed to take a family vacation.

Demanding that kind of commitment may be justified at the high school varsity level-although that, too, is highly debatable-but it certainly isn't necessary at earlier ages, according to proponents of Family Life 1st. "When you're young, you play for fun," says Brad Anderson, varsity football coach at Wayzeta High School. "A kid doesn't worry about whether he'll make the high school sports team someday. It's more likely that his parents are worried whether he'll make the high school sports team."

The roots of Family Life 1st go back to a 1998 conference about family time and family rituals held in Wayzeta, at which Doherty spoke. A small group of parents invited Doherty back the next year to help them develop a program that would make family life a higher priority in the community. Members of a small steering committee interviewed other community members about how they perceive the problem of too many extracurricular activities, culling new ideas and resources that helped flesh out the goals of Family Life 1st.

While no organization is forced to comply with the guidelines suggested by the initiative, a seal of approval is awarded to those groups that demonstrate a commitment to helping kids balance priorities, offer family-friendly scheduling and honor family and religious commitments.

Anderson is all for the initiative-but convincing him is easy. Anderson inherited a team that adheres to a philosophy introduced by a former coach, which places the priorities of faith, family obligations and academics above the sport. "It's not like having this philosophy has hurt our program," he says, citing five state sectional appearances in six years. "And we'll have even better teams because of Family Life 1st. In the long run, we're going to be more successful because we're not going to lose kids to burnout."

But getting other parents, coaches and kids to support the movement could be more difficult. "You might find some splintered groups," Sherwood says. Already, he adds, parents are expressing concerns about their children's skill levels falling below those of their peers if they adhere to Family Life 1st guidelines and take a season off or spend two weeks on a family vacation.

And what about high school conference rivals whose student-athletes grew up in communities in which they weren't encouraged to limit their participation in youth sports? Might Family Life 1st be blamed if, several years from now, Wayzeta High School's soccer team loses the biggest game of its season because of a perceived imbalance between the skill level of the two teams' players? Perhaps, but there's something more at stake here than just winning and losing, according to Sherwood.

"I really believe this is good for the physical and mental wellbeing of kids and families," he says, adding that if Family Life 1st catches on, real change might not be seen until at least one generation goes through the city's youth sports and high school athletics systems. "The question is, can a community pull together on this initiative? Personally, I don't think it can. But I think the result will be a discussion about the direction in which youth and high school sports are going."

"Sports have changed," agrees Anderson, whose daughters, ages 5 and 7, already are being pressured by youth organizations to choose a sport in which to specialize. "Somewhere along the line we kind of lost sight of the fact that sports is supposed to provide a positive experience in a social setting for kids. And Family Life 1st is helping people refocus on that again."