Last year I taught high school students about stress management, at the request of a concerned teacher who wanted to help reduce the anxiety associated with project deadlines. The teens seemed to appreciate the reprieve, but what I got from my experience was urgency. It’s one thing to read about the health crisis our youth are facing in the news, but it’s eye-opening to see it first hand. Yes, most of them knew about eating, working out, sleeping, all that. Yet, most of them lived on sugar and energy drinks, and they didn’t do any kind of movement at all. Based on what I saw at the quarterly student art exhibit, their spirit – define it any way you want – wasn’t doing so hot either. Many expressed a level of frustration, hopelessness, and anger that shocked and downright depressed me.
Take a quick glance at the SOS: Stressed out Student Project Conference agenda from 2008 and you’ll get a good clue about our teens’ current state of wellbeing from the presenters’ book titles:
A couple days ago I chatted with a young five year old, I’ll call Parker, who has wanted to sign up for classes at Hiruko after observing his sibling for some time.
“Will you be taking classes here soon?”
He shook his head slowly and told me he needs to finish all the school “must-dos” before he can start. He told me the rule is very clear, and it’s especially hard in school.
“I don’t get my free play until I finish my must-dos”.
“How old are you again?” I asked cautiously.
“I just turned five”.
His manner struck me. Parker is generally a responsible little guy who has clearly learned the importance of honoring his parents and teachers, but, in that moment, he didn’t seem to think there was hope of finishing all his must-dos. He seemed trapped. Our conversation left me wondering; what is an authentic way to inspire our children while also holding a vision for their wellbeing. We’ve all had moments when, with the most sincere and noble intentions, we’ve pushed our kids a bit too much, too soon, too hard. We want our kids to be attentive listeners, considerate thinkers, compassionate friends, creative contributors, inspired artists, accomplished athletes, and courageous leaders. We know that children who get these types of results are disciplined and focused. But many are also stressed out.
I urge you to ask yourself: where and when can our kids get that wellbeing is “cool”, and who is generating the possibility of “wellbeing” as an equally important must-do? It’s not too late for the teens, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s never too late. But I’d like to see some changes now. I want the school must-dos to include daily breathing exercises, and family must-dos to include some form of exercise four to five times a week. I want parents to feel empowered to advocate for their children’s time and wellbeing. I asked Parker how he feels when he can’t have free play. “Very sad”, he said. How would you feel?