While visiting friends over the summer, I was disheartened to find that even those I most admire – smart, successful, loving people – are choosing a path for their children that leaves them all miserable. The stress in the home was palpable. After a LONG day at summer camp, even their 5-year-old was subjected to drilling of math facts at 8:30 at night. In the summer! The poor girl was squirming down her chair to try to disappear under the table, whining, and stating over and over again how much she hated this, that she didn’t want to be doing this. It was painful to watch. When I suggested to the father that this not be insisted upon at this time in this way, he actually said, “We all need to work. She has to get used to work.” “REALLY?!” I thought, “At 5?!”
And let’s be clear about what summer camps are all about now. A recent New York Times article covered the new phenomenon in summer camps today, brought on by the demands of parents -I’m sorry -who have lost their mind. Regardless of the fact that throughout the school year children hardly get to play just for fun anymore, not with the never-ending demands of No Child Left Behind, they also have to perfect their skills while at summer camp. Whether the camp is academics- or sports-based, the trend today is to ensure that children become experts by the end of their stay. Parents want to see that for their money, their child became a better pitcher, swimmer, writer or mathematician.
This would all be fine if we weren’t so miserable. My friend, the father of the 5-year-old being drilled, made an enlightened statement during our visit. He said, “We are all just so disconnected.” Ah-ha! At least he gets that much. With the pressure we are experiencing from others and creating ourselves, we have turned into “stress-cases” that our children must navigate around. As a result, their developing brain and body grow up less able to regulate affect and behavior. For example, the 5-year-old being drilled at 8:30 p.m. had a nightmare that night. And the next day from summer camp, we got a phone call that she was complaining of a sore tummy. The whole time I visited she kept asking me if we could go back to sitting in the grass and playing, “I See, I Hear, I Sense” – one of the grounding exercises from my activities book, and when I had to leave, she clung to me like a monkey on a tree. We all know what we need, the littlest among us best, I think. Our children are telling us. Our bodies are telling us. When are we going to listen?
Instead of both listening and speaking up to end this meaningless rat race, we’re cheating! Parents are doing their children’s homework and teachers are helping their students cheat on state-wide testing. In Atlanta, yes, we all heard about that case, but another recent article in the New York Times reported that cheating on the state tests has happened in dozens of school districts across several states, and those are just the cases we know about. The many and growing symptoms of the disorder known as No Child Left Behind cannot be ignored, and they are all created by stress.
Teachers and parents alike, here are my 3 tips for getting your mind back, because if you do, I promise you will soon begin to love living again:
1. Pay attention! Please! STOP, LOOK, and LISTEN. My friends’ children were all exhibiting obvious signs of stress, and so were my friends! They rarely smiled, the whole lot of them, and I don’t think they had a clue. They were just going about their grind because that’s what you do. (Really?!) Please, begin to notice yourself: how your body feels, how you’re sleeping, what you’re eating, how what you’re eating, listening to, and surrounding yourself with are making you feel. Notice your children in the exact same way. Every choice you make for you and for them has an effect on stress levels, and too much stress is the culprit of all evils – every disorder, every disease.
2. Remember the golden rule: We only do well when we feel good. This is a basic neuroscientific fact. When stress is too high, our heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol (stress hormone) levels increase. When they stay elevated for too long, they begin to interfere with our brain/body’s ability to regulate all functions, including sleep. We begin to have sleep disturbances, nightmares, sore tummies, migraines, and eventually, we lose our zest, our joy, and our love of being alive. Trust me, when that happens, skills do not get perfected, and test scores do not go up. Even if we are hanging in there for now, eventually, the piper will get paid. There is a cumulative effect of stress on the nervous system over time. If we want to live a long, happy life, and if we want our children to be able to stay the course with their education – a marathon, not a sprint – then we have to feel good and we have to want our children to feel good.
3. Do something different! When you see that your child is miserable being drilled, please stop. Just stop. Cuddle her up. Sing her a song. Play in a bubble bath. And lull her to sleep. I promise you, you will get much more of what you want from her OVER THE LONG TERM when she feels relief. Take action in so many ways you are not doing now. Speak up. Go to your schools, school districts, congress people, the White House! and demand that things be done a different way. Eliminate meaningless homework, or at least make it optional. (Another New York Times article recently covered this new trend and all its benefits.) Get inspired at one of my talks. My new fall schedule is now posted at my website under “Events.” I may soon be in a city near you. Join the movement through any number of fabulous websites, such as Save our Schools, The Race to Nowhere, or America’s Angel.
Resources for a new and better way abound. Please seek them out and take one small step of action. If we all do that we will soon see some evidence that we are getting our collective mind back, and that would be a good thing.