A Different Type of Back-to-School Assignments?

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Screen Shot 08-08-17 at 09.06 PMYou may have noticed that heading back to school just isn’t like it used to be. There used to be new shoes, new hairstyles, new backpacks all in preparation for what everyone hoped would be “the best year ever!”

Amidst all this excitement, it’s easy to overlook a not-so-fun thought: more kids in the U.S. than ever are reporting depression and anxiety. An excellent article by Kyle Spencer is “It Takes a Suburb: how the people of Lexington, Mass., have come together to fight student stress,” The New York Times, April 9, 2017. That suburb, like Palo Alto, like North Dallas, is fraught with excellence, so much so that high school students created their own de-stress room, The Rock Room. It was a space to just chill, to paint rocks to give to a pal or to talk with friends. Slowly the rocks painted with encouraging slogans began to pile up. “They became a visual reminder of a larger, community-wide initiative to tackle the joy-killing, suicide-inducing performance anxiety so prevalent in turbocharged suburbs….”  The  community got behind the idea of decreasing student pressures by offering relaxation activities in class, by limiting homework assignments, by eliminating class rank. 

So, how to get ahead of this issue? Start by considering what “success” really means in your family. It turns out that our kids hear us and virtually all the adults in our community and believe us when we say, “You need to get into a good school so you can get a good job….(so work on that essay, study for SAT prep, do that varsity sport even if you don’t like it anymore, do that volunteer work since it looks great on your high school resume)” But is that really what we mean? Looking way down the road 10, 15, even 20 years from now, is having a good job the only measure of success you’ll care about for your child? If he’s doing drugs regularly but has a great job, is that “success”? If she’s unkind to others and ignores her family but has a great job, is that “success”? You catch the drift. Of course we want them to be decent, healthy, kind, upstanding citizens of the world, to love life. Of course. . . so when do we say that? And when do they hear it?

What benchmarks of that kind of success might you look for, hope for this year? What would setting those expectations sounds like at your house?

  • This year, I’d like to hear about someone you’re showing special kindness toward, or about someone who’s showing special kindness toward you;
  • You always seem to do well on the assignments teachers give you. . . which makes me proud. This year, I’d love to see you “assign” yourself something which interests you, something you’d like to learn more about just for fun. I’d like to join you in that fun;
  • The world, our nation is a pretty contentious place right now. Our family believes that things are better when you listen to one another. This year, I’d like to hear about a time you listened to someone different from you and whether you agreed or disagreed once you’d heard what they had to say.

I am often surprised at the latent wisdom kids have, so much so that I’ve come to believe that we expect too little from them. . . not by way of assignments or SAT scores, but in the way of looking at life and thinking about what they see, making sense of what they see. Feelings in their world are confusing right now with anxiety, despair, anger, rejection, exclusion rampant. They need your help to sort things.

As your family is preparing for the new school year, give some thought to what “success” means to you. Then engage a conversation that helps your child/teen build a path in that direction.