As we approach September, thoughts of school are increasingly present in our minds; Children starting new grades, meeting new and higher expectations and challenges, and adults flexing (sometimes to the point of breaking) to accommodate the ever increasing complexity of children’s lives. It seems a good time to pause and evaluate if the ways in which we are setting up our lives line up with the ways in which we’d like to live them.
It seems that in the desire to prepare children for adult life, we are displacing many of the key ingredients for their health and well-being, now and in the future. In and of themselves, each special activity or AP class seems important and reasonable. Sports build team-work and character, music develops the brain, honor societies develop values and look good on the resume. The problem is that one person cannot excel, or participate, in all things.
What must be considered are the things that become displaced when such an intense schedule is maintained: family time, social time, quiet time, time for pleasure reading, sleep.
Despite the current cultural communication, we cannot have everything, do everything and be everything – nor should we. It used to be more accepted that some people were more athletic, others more academic. Some people would pursue college and others a trade. Some would play an instrument and others might dance or act. It was understood and appreciated that different people have different strengths and that society would benefit from this wonderful mix of interests, passion and skill.
The current communication is that each student has to participate in a multitude of areas and to excel in as many of these as possible. It is not uncommon for me to hear of a student taking multiple AP classes, participating in a school sport, playing a musical instrument, volunteering and joining school clubs. They are up until 2 and 3 in the morning studying, and back out on Saturday at 7am to volunteer. Once in a while you will find a student who thrives on this type of intense and challenging fast paced schedule, but most often students seem burdened if not crushed by the demands. They sit in my office crying, depleted and confused, wondering why there is not time to breathe and why nothing they do seems to be enough. Trying to be all things to all people, they have lost a sense of who they are and what they want. They have lost perspective and balance. These students are increasingly developing anxiety and depression. They have low esteem and are worn beyond their years.
The reality is that students who stay up until 2am studying are not rested and able to learn properly the next day. They cannot focus to learn in the classroom and they are not properly consolidating and storing material during the critical sleep period. They are like hamsters on a wheel, running round and round and never getting anywhere. The studied material is forgotten, the tasks checked off. Deeper, more meaningful learning is lost.
There are over 2500 4 year colleges and universities in the United States. There is a college for every student who is interested in pursuing education, and there is a trade for every person who wants to work hard to learn and master it. There are programs for all types of learners.
One thing that often falls away in the chaos of daily life is the family dinner; however, having dinner as a family has incredibly powerful and positive affects on children’s well-being and success. Children of families who eat together are more likely to stay away from drugs and alcohol, to share concerns and information about their lives, to eat healthy and maintain a healthy weight. They are less stressed and get better grades in school. The more dinners together each week, the better the effect. These children have greater physical and emotional health. Setting time to sit with one another, to connect, comfort and really see one another is the root of the positive effect of family meals. Everyone understands that time together is a value and a priority as well as a resource.
In addition to family time, unstructured time is necessary. Down time allows for dreaming and planning, integrating and wondering. It opens up space for the unexpected, the unplanned. A walk in the park, lunch with a friend, watching an old movie on TV or watching the clouds drift by - these are spaces for discovery and they are just as, if not more, important than AP Chemistry.
In setting up your schedule for the year, I invite you to schedule down time. It’s a bit of an oxymoron, but it works and is necessary. Set aside time for quiet, for solitude, for family dinners, for movie night. Mark it on your calendar and when other competing events present themselves, respectfully decline – you have other plans.