There is now a whole body of books and other writing about the depressed, anxious, disconnected, binging world of American adolescent stress-out. As more and more casualties fall off the hamster wheel of current college preparatory life and on-campus life style, I find myself asking ever more frequently: “Why are we doing this to our children?” Children elsewhere have different overwhelming stressors such as poverty and refugee status to contend with daily, and these might make the stresses of the privileged look suspect for sympathy, but I don’t believe that is a fair stance to take in relation to our young who often don’t have, or are made to fell that they don’t have, any choice in their school and stress situation. .
I teach stress reduction, relaxation and meditation skills to teenagers, and though they are very positive and responsive to the work we do together, I never cease to ask why we have to put them under so much stress in the first place . ..so much, that is, in addition to the considerable challenge of being adolescent in the first place. Stress is different from challenge, and different for different people, but in the end, having too much to do, at too fast a pace, all of the time, is stressful for just about everyone. Chronic excessive work load is one factor that stress experts agree tops the list of stressors that are hard to respond to effectively with “skills”. People who have too much to do all of the time need LESS TO DO. While stress reduction skills can be very effective and helpful for many stressors, they don’t replace decreasing system-induced stress preventively.
Over the recent Holiday weekend I spent time with a number of my teenage nieces and nephews. They were all having fun and truly engaged. We didn’t have a lap-top, cell phoned, iphoned, distracto scene at our house. We had music and laughing and the kids preparing a screenplay collaboratively, but it was all cut short by the need to get them home so they could prepare the considerable amount of homework they all had to have ready for Monday November 26. Papers, tests, and long reading assignments had all been given over the holiday weekend. I want to know why this is necessary.
Why can’t kids enjoy some time off with their families and friends with no lurking academic responsibilities to distract and burden them. These are kids, and I’m sure my family is not unusual in this respect, who love school and usually do excellent work. They are not slackers who need to be reminded, by jumping through increasingly difficult hoops , that hard work pays off and is a virtue. It is common knowledge that American students are lagging behind other students world wide on many measurable counts, so it doesn’t wash to say that all this stress keeps them competitive globally. That’s not true. In addition to so much work, and for younger and younger children, we are cutting out recesses and sports and music and art. These are the things we parents and grandparents grew up knowing were the fine wine of education, the balanced nuance and nourishment that brought it all together and made life savorable and satisfying…and probably even helped us understand math and logic and spatial relations better.
We can keep the challenge, excellence and the creativity in eduction and life without making ourselves and our children sick and overwhelmed. As it is, the student aristocrats of the American educational scene are those who just happen to have the constitution, genes and endurance to withstand workload and time pressures and the frequently denatured and toxic food supply. Other brilliant, creative, interesting people dwindle in the face of the demands they face, and we often don’t get to see them thrive on their own, perhaps less busy or better nourished, terms. They are more likely to end up diagnosed.
Recently I went in to talk to the Head of a private school where I teach. I suggested to her that we might implement a four year Stress Reduction Skills program, which the students could put on their “resume” for college application. I suggested that colleges would look favorably on students who had been committed, over the course of their high school career, to learning relaxation and stress reduction skills other than binge drinking, binge eating and marijuana use. Taking fewer course would be an option for the stress reduction “track”, and I suggested that this could be seen as a positive stress-less decision as opposed to a sign of less commitment and rigor in academics.
My suggestion was greeted with the kind of look government officials must often give when they say something needs to be evaluated for needs assessment and perhaps become the subject of a commission or special report before any changes could actually be made. That’s a “BIG” idea she said, implying to me that it might be too big to take on at the moment….and there was a distinct implication that any one school might be vulnerable in being the first to implement such a program before others did to. That is: “If I relax first you might ‘get ahead’ of me.”
So, I’m suggesting that we all agree together to relax more, which, as I teach my students, means we’ll be able to do things BETTER, MORE PRODUCTIVELY AND WITH MORE FOCUS AND AWARENESS. Skill for relaxation and for acquiring positive traits of consciousness such as generosity and compassion need to be taken as seriously as other skills learned during the course of young people’s education.