School is back. And sometimes it’s back with a vengeance. Or so it seems from a letter I received from Linda, mother of a fourth grader in Montgomery County. She said even at that age, students are instructed to have “working lunches” to complete their assignments. “The children are told that they may eat while they work,” she wrote. “Generally, children who do not finish their work during lunch also do not get recess.”
The problem here is complex, deeply rooted in our culture, and getting worse.
Our instincts tell us that if our children achieve a great deal, they get into the best schools, find the best jobs, and feel secure.
Although there might be some truth in that, our children are seen more as performance machines rather than the small, developing spiritual beings they are. And the larger world increasingly sees our children as performance objects. The “No Child Left Behind” Act is about numbers and performance.
The result? Some children and schools perform better. And some get injured, like an 11-year-old friend who came to me crying after struggling with an assignment, asking: “Do you think they will leave me back?” That was after four days of school.
Even the ones who perform well get injured. Research shows that children’s primary complaint these days is about stress. Many children go on to develop stress-related disorders, from anxiety and substance abuse to depression and sexual promiscuity.
I recently spoke to 300 middle and high school students in a private school. I asked how many needed more sleep. Everyone raised his hand. Many of these children may grow up to be successful by conventional standards, yet never find the security they and their parents wish for.
We have a terrible problem with public education today. Many schools are underachieving. But we must do more than threaten if results are not achieved. Any parent who has tried that with a child knows that approach fails every time.
Underachieving schools need the same support as underachieving children: They need caring and understanding of their problem, and the time and resources to remedy it. Anything less will fail.
Our children in failing schools struggle with the most lethal of emotions – hopelessness.
For them to have hope, they must have an image that tomorrow can be better than today. They don’t have that image.
Neither do the children from high-performing schools. More than 90 percent have told me they see their parents as living under enormous stress, and they expect to do the same.
So, to Linda and other parents of hard-working children, your worry is justified. Children need leisurely lunch with time to play. Research shows that the children who do best in life are those who like to “hang out” with their parents. If we could all “hang out” more, rather than rushing our children around, maybe they would see parents who are more relaxed and happy. Maybe they would have some hope for their future.
Stress can take over our emotions and play them like a violin. But if we can understand and tolerate our emotions before reacting, the knot in the stomach might be diminished. We won’t feel so out of control.
For stressed children, you can go to the teacher and complain. If nothing changes, go to the supervisor, the superintendent, and the school board. Changes can be made at that level in the voting booth.
If our children watch us working this hard to ensure their genuine happiness, they will probably feel more understood, respected and loved. Let that be where their security begins.