The front page of the Times yesterday ran an article about the fact that college Freshmen are showing record levels of stress. This from a survey of 200,000 incoming Freshmen that has been done every year for the past 25 years. “Campus counselors say the survey results are the latest evidence of what they see every day in their offices – students who are depressed, under stress and using psychiatric medication, prescribed even before they came to college.”
The article says the downturn in the economy is a factor, because college grads are no longer guaranteed good jobs, and so kids automatically think they need an MBA or PhD. They also say kids feel they need to be perfect all the time in order to be worthy, which means their view of their own emotional health is down, because of course no one is perfect.
Why do kids feel they need to be perfect all the time? Where does that come from? It must be learned, because small children have no issues with making mistakes. They do it, quite happily, all the time. I think it is learned in schools and reinforced by parents at home. Schools that see any kind of failure as a loss of government funds, and parents who see their kids’ mistakes as a personal reflection on them. Even some homeschool parents have this problem, demanding that their kids do ‘school-work’ at a certain time and to a certain level. Days when kids wind up in tears or have anxiety attacks because they haven’t done the work ‘right’.
To what end? Good question. Happiness? Well if that’s the goal, this is a very strange way to go about it. So that kids will excel at something and be successful? How many people do you know who perform at their best with an ax over their heads? Not too many. Or if they do, it’s short-lived and they wind up committing suicide. Or taking anti-depressants. Or finding themselves in co-dependent, abusive relationships. Maybe they’ll have money. Small compensation for a life lived in despair.
Here’s the thing I love about unschooling. There is no completely right way to do it. You’ve got to find the path that works best for you and your kids. But the stress levels and performance anxiety are non-existent. I’ve never yet met an unschooled kid who had problems with self-esteem, anxiety or stress. And the trick for parents? To let go of those ideas about who your kids ‘need’ to be, and to re-evaluate what success in life means. If my kid decides he or she wants to be a dog-walker for a living, and they absolutely love doing it? Go for it. Do what you love. Who cares what other people think about it? Don’t need a PhD for it? More power to you. And, on the other hand, if my kid decides what they want more than anything in the world is to be an oceanographer, then I will do everything I can to make sure they have the tools necessary to do so. What if they think they want to be an oceanographer, but after doing some studying and maybe finding out what that really entails, they turn to dog-walking? Or vice versa? Great!
We must stop this way of thinking that leads kids to believe they are only successful if they are perfect. There is no such thing. We need to step back from this idea that more and more school, more structure, more testing will give us more success and happiness. It won’t. Happy kids are self-determined, auto-didactic explorers of their universe. Even if that universe leads them nowhere farther than their own back yard.