Stressed Out Kids
Margaret Wheatley ©2002
I've been noticing many disturbing indicators from the lives of American
children. Here are just a few incidents that I've noted.
A New Jersey school system decided to
give all children one free night with no scheduled
activities. They had to plan for this six months in advance.
Elementary school children are developing
back and neck problems normally not seen
until adulthood. These physical ailments are caused by their school
backpacks. The packs often weigh about
twenty pounds; the children often weigh about
Fourteen hundred college students died
this past year as a consequence of binge drinking.
Out-of-control college drinking on campuses has become so serious that
Congressional hearings have been held
My thirteen year old granddaughter explained
to me how she needs to know her weekly
schedule, otherwise she can't cope with the anxiety and develops headaches.
By themselves, each of these incidents might mean nothing, but together
they paint a disturbing picture. I believe they are indications of the
fact that children's lives have become miniature versions of our own
adult lives. We seem to be acculturating our children to be constantly
busy, to be burdened by schedules, to become so stressed that they seek
inappropriate ways to release that stress. Long before they start school,
children develop schedules of their own, moving from one coordinated
activity or program to another We no longer have to wait till adulthood
in order to feel over-committed and overwhelmed.
I don't know if there's a solution to this frenzy of activity amongst
all ages. But I believe we should notice what's happening to our children.
How comfortable are our children with unstructured time? Do they experience
moments of quiet, of just being in the moment? How do they feel when
their plans fall apart? What's their response to boredom and loneliness?
Lest I sound like a crabby old lady, let me tell you why I started noticing
these things. I spend a great deal of time with teen-agers, partly because
I have two at home, and partly because they're both in the same rock
band, and I often travel to concerts and clubs where they're performing.
I also have thirteen grandchildren. And my work brings me into daily
contact with many adults in different professions and work places. During
the past few years, I've watched the levels of stress, anxiety, conflict
and craziness keep rising in all these different age groups.
There are many indicators of rising stress. In America and Europe, sleeping
disorders are on the rise, rage and abuse are on the rise. More diseases
are appearing that are linked to nervous conditions. One European health
survey predicted that within the next twenty years, the leading causes
of death would be from diseases of the heart and of the nervous system.
And stress and anxiety have invaded the lives of children. Teachers
report greater anxiety in students. Some of this is a manifestation
of their parents' stress; some of it is caused by the demands placed
on kids. Increasingly, greater numbers of children are medicated in
order to quiet them down, and to help them stay focused.
From what I observe, American society is speeding up to such a frenzied
state that any day now, I expect to witness a human being exploding
in front of me. And when this frenzy starts to affect our children,
when we seem unconsciously to be creating them in our own image, I get
worried. It's been a slow creeping change in our children's lives, another
example of the boiled frog who didn't notice the water temperature rising.
When did it become normal for kids to have so many commitments in their
lives that they require their own schedules and day planners? When did
we develop the expectation that kids should do so many activities: school
work, organized league sports, school clubs, music, dance or sports
lessons, paying jobs, and active social lives? It's no wonder that many
high school students report they stay up doing homework until after
midnight. Homework is the last obligation at the end of a day of non-stop
activities. And parents of young children are encouraged to get them
involved in structured programs and lessons even before they begin school.
(Let me confess--I had one son in swimming lessons at six months. One
daughter-in-law teaches music and rhythm to children one to three years
Most parents I know are not happy with keeping pace with their kids
demanding schedules. Early evenings and week-ends are spent shuttling
kids to their soccer or Little League games or school activities. It's
no wonder we can't wait for them to be able to drive. But even if we
want to slow things down and give our kids some relief, most of them
don't want it.
As hassled and fatigued as our kids may be, they've grown dependent
on feeling busy. They've learned to schedule their days down to the
minute in order to fit in everything. They don't like or know what to
do with down time. Several of the students interviewed in New Jersey
found that the free evening given to all kids in their community was
boring. They felt confined by "free" time.
So changing our kids' lives is very complex. They don't know what they're
missing. And peer pressure is real. Therefore, we can't act individually
as parents and insist that only our kids participate in fewer activities.
If we ask them to withdraw from "normal" activities, they'll only feel
strange and different, and alienated from us as parents. The community
in New Jersey realized that this was a community issue and made an attempt
to address it at that level.
Because this is a community issue, I believe we need to start the conversation
with other parents, and with school administrators. If we share our
own experiences, we can help each other notice what's going on. Then
together we can determine what we might initiate as a community to ease
up on our kids. I hope we don't have to wait until our children reach
adulthood for them to discover, as we may have done, that a healthy
life requires peaceful moments, and that being present in the moment
is a wondrous skill.
I hope we can teach them that plans are not the answer to all of life's
needs, that there is truth to the old joke that if you want to make
God laugh, just present your plans. I hope we can teach them to expect
moments of chaos when everything falls apart, and to dance with those
moments rather than fear them. I hope we can teach them to not be afraid
of boredom and loneliness, so that they stop grasping after entertainment,
drugs, or alcohol to fill the void. Loneliness, boredom, restlessness-these
are conditions of being human. No matter how much we deny them or run
from them, they always return. As we mature, hopefully we learn that
we don't need to fill the emptiness, that we can just sit with it and
it will pass.
But I wonder how my children are learning these fundamental life lessons.
Margaret Wheatley is a well-respected writer, speaker, and teacher for how we can accomplish our work, sustain our relationships, and willingly step forward to serve in this troubling time. She has written six books: Walk Out Walk On (with Deborah Frieze, 2011); Perseverance (2010); Leadership and the New Science; Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future; A Simpler Way (with Myron Rogers); and Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. Each of her books has been translated into several languages; Leadership and the New Science appears in 18 languages. She is co-founder and President emerita of The Berkana Institute, which works in partnership with a rich diversity of people and communities around the world, especially in the Global South. These communities find their health and resilience by discovering the wisdom and wealth already present in their people, traditions and environment (www.berkana.org). Wheatley received her doctorate in Organizational Behavior and Change from Harvard University, and a Masters in Media Ecology from New York University. She's been an organizational consultant since 1973, a global citizen since her youth, a professor in two graduate business programs, a prolific writer, and a happy mother and grandmother. She has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. You may read her complete bio at http://margaretwheatley.com/bio.html, and may download any of her many articles (free) at http://margaretwheatley.com/writing.html.
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