By Rachael Abrams, LCSW-C
I have a vivid parenting memory where my barely 4 year old and I hosted a playdate for a little boy and his mother. As it often does, the conversation turned to the kids and specifically, the various extracurricular options available to even the youngest of children. After rattling off the list of activities her child participated in, the mother turned to me and said, “You know, you really have to start preparing for college in Kindergarten.” What? What about my boys and their love of digging for worms in the backyard? Their ability to create elaborate rocketships and submarines out of sofa cushions? The detailed playing of library, complete with a checkout system, in their rooms? While I consider myself fairly grounded, her statement made me question if I was doing my kids a disservice by not enrolling them in daily activities and instead, just letting them…well, play.
How do we define success for our children? This question has never weighed more heavily on me than after a recent screening of the critically acclaimed film Race to Nowhere by Vicki Abeles. The film raises many issues for parents, educators and anyone working with children to consider, specifically the pressure that our children are under. This pressure can come from a variety of sources – coursework, expectations, society, the sheer lack of down time that our children have in the course of a day, especially by the time they get to middle school. The pressure, whether intended or not, can come from parents themselves. How many of us are guilty of firing off questions as soon as our kids get home from school: “What did you do today?” “How did you do on your math test?” “Do you have homework?” Would you want to answer any of these questions after sitting in school for 7 hours? I know I wouldn’t.
Many of the children interviewed in the film state that they feel they don’t have time to be a kid. While we all know in our hearts how important it is for children to play and have downtime – at any age – it is easy to get wrapped up in the hype of keeping up with the Jones’. When they are babies, the talk is about whether your child is crawling and talking. In elementary school, the reading and math placements. In middle school, the skills that your child is mastering. In high school, the ways your child is preparing for college. Falling prey to these traps adds additional pressure to our kids and it can be hard to climb out of that downward spiral. Employers in today’s job market are looking for skills such as creativity, critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration. If we take away all of the learning opportunities for children to build these skills while they are young, perhaps we are preventing them from acquiring the skills that will help them succeed in the future.
What can you do?
- Examine your own definitions of success for your children. Make sure they are your definitions and not what someone else has carved out.
- Give some thought to what it truly means to produce happy and healthy children. Talk to your kids to help determine what their days need to look like.
- Kids are naturally creative and have a love of learning – do your best to help them maintain this attitude throughout their schooling.
- Check in with your kids, even as they get older. This can be tricky as you don’t want to be over involved but you do want to be able to help if a problem arises, particularly if your child doesn’t know how to articulate the problem.
- Remember, kids get stressed too. There is a difference between unreasonably high expectations and expectations that are developmentally appropriate and expressed in an encouraging way.
- Be a positive role model. Participate in meaningful opportunities where your contributions are appreciated. When appropriate, admit your own frustrations and stressors and talk to your child about your experiences.
- Accept your child for who he or she is, not what you want him or her to be. Do your part to reduce performance pressure on your child.
In the end, it isn’t the extracurricular activities or the test scores that matter most. What matters is that as parents, we are informed, we learn from our mistakes and we do everything in our power to raise healthy, resilient children who are prepared for the world that lies before them.
Rachael Abrams, LCSW-C, JCS Outreach Specialist
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