Earlier this week I watched as Miss 12 bustled around the kitchen, catching up on some cooking she was meant to do for the week. She looked bothered and whenever one of her sisters spoke to her she would snap at them and sweep them out of the way. After seeing this happen a few times, I asked her what was wrong and she told me, ‘I just have a lot to do, I need to make these snacks and I need to work on my art for the art exhibition!’ She has not experienced much stress in her childhood, but today she was stressed.
We had a chat about a plan and when we could fit in everything she wanted to do. Problem solved.
Later, I was thinking about how these kinds of stresses are really the only ones in my children’s lives, and how uncommon that is. By this age, most kids are experiencing a pretty significant amount of stress. Generally, my unschooled children are pretty carefree. Any stress that they experience is the result of things they have chosen to do themselves, is manageable, and is a natural part of learning to manage your time.
To be entering the teen years without having experienced a pretty significant amount of stress on a daily basis during childhood, a packed schedule, adult-imposed deadlines, and judgement, is quite rare.
I thought back to what things were like for me at age 12. I was in Grade 7 and at one point I remember clearly my classroom teacher asking me if there was anything I wanted to talk about, or if anything was going on at home for me because she said I rarely smiled. I was so confused. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I was fine!
What is also true is that I was anxious every day of my life that year. Every morning going to school I felt a sense of dread.
And yet, I would have said that I enjoyed school and I couldn’t pinpoint anything that was going wrong. I was a ‘good’ student, I never got in trouble, and I never even had one detention all throughout my schooling! I even liked my teacher this year. However, my teacher was also quite strict. I saw other people getting in trouble, there was always the threat of punishment, the risk of disappointing her if I didn’t perform well enough, and the worry of not being good enough. There were deadlines and expectations and a lot of things to remember in order to keep being ‘good’. The environment was one of demands, control, time pressure, and judgment, and this was incredibly stressful for me.
For many children, school is a highly stressful environment, even when nothing seems to be going wrong for them. Even when they can’t articulate what the problem is. Even when they say they like school. Even when they are one of the ‘good’ kids.
If you want to make sure 30 children all learn the same thing in the same period of time, you’re probably going to rely on obedience. How do you do that? You make them afraid.
Children don’t want to sit down and listen to someone teach them things they haven’t even had a chance to ask questions about yet. That’s not how they learn. To ensure they ignore their natural instincts and do what you tell them, you’re going to have to make them scared of the consequences if they don’t. Some children need to experience threats and punishment directly before they comply, some only need to know it’s a possibility.
Call me crazy, but I just don’t think that’s a healthy environment for children. I don’t think they should spend their childhood experiencing so much stress, worrying about getting a good enough grade, dealing with mountains of homework, peer pressure, exam performance, fitting in, bullying, and all the other stresses of school. This is not what childhood should be like.
“Youth mental health service ReachOut has released new data showing that almost 50 per cent of young people feel extremely or very stressed about study and exams, with similar numbers indicating that study stress is having a major impact on their mental health and wellbeing (46 per cent).”Source
The amount of stress children are under at school is intolerable. If this is the price of an ‘education’ then it is far too high. Our children’s mental and physical well-being is far more important. We are trading childhood for test scores.
When does it stop? When adults use their voices to say no.
Whether it’s ‘no, I won’t put them in that environment’, or ‘no, school will not intrude on our home time’, or ‘no thank you we will be opting out of that testing’, or ‘no, I won’t pressure my child to meet standards’, or ‘no, I won’t lie to them that school is the only path to success’.
There are many ways to say no. To be brave and say enough is enough.
For us, we opted out. Do our children sometimes experience stress? Yes. Life is that way! They experience a tolerable amount of stress that they learn to manage and work through. What they do not experience is an overwhelming amount of stress that they cannot escape from.
After I had chatted with Miss 12 and we had worked out when we could fit in all the things she wanted to do that week, she happily continued her baking. No more grumpiness; no more frown. Afterward, she went off to practice for her ballet exam and play with her sisters, supported to reach her own goals rather than pressured to perform. Free to truly learn, and enjoy her childhood.