As a Los Angeleno who grew up in the 80s and 90s, my memories of childhood typically bring me back to after-school playdates. Knowing I had plans to go home with friends after school had me waking up in the morning with excitement and focus throughout the day. I loved it. The after-school plan would almost always start with a snack and then immediately sitting at the kitchen table to do homework together. Sometimes an adult would stop in to help or ask us if we’d like more food. It felt easier and more motivating to do the work when I had my companion and treats to power me through. Homework usually only lasted 1-2 hours (up to 3 during high school) so by 5pm, we were watching cartoons, playing pretend, listening to music, doing arts and crafts, running in the backyard, and goofing around. By adolescence, that turned into logging into AOL (dial-up and all) and chatting with all the friends we just saw at school. My memory of school years consisted of socialization, play, and academic responsibilities. But, with increasing academic demands, increasing college applications and competition, two-earner households due to increased cost of living and school tuition for many, how are our children and teens today experiencing their school years?
I’ve spoken to many parents, teens, and pre-teens about their lives during the school year and so far, I’ve found two consistent responses with one theme in particular. Everyone is extremely busy and under pressure. It is either due to numerous after school extracurricular activities (with minimal opportunity to socialize before, during, or after piano and karate lessons) or piles of homework and examination prep (with little to no opportunity for fun, socialization, or sleep). Families and their kids are exhausted.
As I reflect on some of the families I have spoken to both in my professional and personal life, I find myself continuously urging as well as educating children and their parents about the importance of fostering social interests, independent thinking, and decision-making skills. These important life skills are not always encouraged when piles of homework dictate how to spend your “free” time and tedious assignments weaken creativity during developmental years. It is also hard to nurture when pressure to “succeed” and busy-lifestyles become the standard, and more normalized. In fact, the definition of success has also taken on new meaning and unfortunately, is often set by the institutions children attend, with pressure to perform and impress beginning as early as Kindergarten for both toddlers and their parents. Recess time has already been cut, art and music programs removed, and physical education decreased to twice per week, or none at all.
Given the shift in culture, I encourage families to adopt a resolution for the new school year: Don’t allow school pressure to hijack childhood and some of the important experiences that is crucial to this developmental stage. Learn to lighten the load and set realistic goals. Redefine success in a way that appropriately suits you or your child. Focus your attention on subjects and skills that interest you or your child first and not what colleges expect. Foster critical thinking rather than rule following when necessary. And most importantly, schedule time for doing nothing to allow relaxation, decompression, and recharge—cell-phone free.