Four Ideas for Simplifying Life While Enriching Education
I’ll begin by apologizing for even mentioning the BTS-word while summer is still (imho) in full flower. But by now it’s a quaint, old-fashioned notion that vacation extends until Labor Day — ha! These days some students have to devote that three-day weekend to cranking out their first papers or projects.
In my day [best stated in crochety, old-lady voice], we were very excited for back-to-school, in large part, I think, because summer’s pace was soooooo much slower than it tends to be these days. There weren’t all the summer programs, the series of vacations, the catch-up tutoring. There were long, hot days filled with swimming, catching pollywogs, reading comics and Nancy Drew, and walking to the corner store for candy. Maybe a horseback riding or dance lesson sprinkled in occasionally, or a family outing to the river. Rinse and repeat, for 75 days, and you are ready for the refreshing rigor of school.
As a parent, however, rather than excitement at the approach of BTS, I felt creeping dread, partly for reasons I detailed at the beginning of the summer (seems like just yesterday!), about my relief when school was out. Back to the 6:15 alarm and, before long, rising at dark. All of this was somehow more doable, though, because the overarching rhythm and structure of our children’s school and home life was both manageable and nourishing. Neither they nor I were overextended, and the activities they were pursuing all seemed to fit into a satisfying, cohesive whole. (Well, most of the time.)
Four Ideas for Simplifying Life While Enriching Education
1. UNDERschedule — An ideal curriculum includes a nourishing daily rhythmicity as well as an overall balance of academics, arts, music and physical activity, but if your child’s life cannot include all of these due to the high demands of one or another of these elements (usually academic), it is best to see to it that the sheer number of the child’s commitments are kept manageable — that her life is simplified. She may resist you on this; our current culture of overachievement has a certain allure. Many kids today, particularly in high school, load up with involvements and responsibilities, partly in response to the intense pressures they feel from parents who want them to succeed in the highly competitive college application gauntlet but also partly because their industrialist culture has taught them to find a kind of high from all that achieving and producing.
Indeed, adrenaline and other stress chemicals can (at first) make a person feel so…alive. But as compellingly portrayed in the 2009 documentary film Race to Nowhere, too many of America’s youth are burning out as the long-term neuro-toxic effects of adrenaline and other corticosteroidal stress hormones wreak their havoc on the growth-versus-protection orientation of a child’s being: they suffer debilitating stress, anxiety disorders, and depression.
If you fear that you might be depriving your child if you insist he or she choose between a plethora of activities, it’s just the opposite! One of my little mantras is, “When we overbook, we overlook.” When we’re speeding through stuff, we can tend to skim over it like those water bugs whose feet barely mark the surface. We risk a superficial experience that doesn’t truly satisfy. Just as children seem to enjoy and play more satisfyingly with toys when there is a smaller array of them available, when we have fewer things to do, we are able to do them with more engagement, more enjoyment, more benefit.
Of course it will be easier to chart a course of balance for our children if we as parents aren’t setting an example of overextending ourselves in a whirl of professional, social, charity and school commitments!
2. Care for and feed imagination – Simplicity is a portal to joy, and joy lies at the very foundation of health, wellbeing and peace. Cultivating a sense of wonder and imagination in a child long before the school years fosters “rich simplicity,” because then everything becomes something amazing: wind through the trees is fairies dancing…a piece of wood becomes an alligator or a doll…a spoon becomes a great flag or a king’s scepter. Then we don’t need to constantly purchase things. (Gee, maybe last year’s backpack is still okay…?)
When anything can become a toy, when the latest and newest isn’t necessarily the best, the child experiences such freedom! This is equally true as a child grows into the school-age years and encounters new horizons of ideas and concepts. Their imaginations can weave richness and depth into even the flattest curriculum.
Beginning at seven, children flourish in pursuing singing, drawing, painting, dance, so consider having one of their (limited number of) activities be mindfully structured experiences with one such art — if it appeals to you, and intrigues your child. In a world of so much technology, it will be ever more important that they a have robust ability to imagine (image-in, as opposed to the image-out process behind techno-screens of all kinds). Lee Iacocca, the legendary industry leader who saved the Chrysler Corporation, was interviewed on television in the 1990s, and in response to the reporter’s question, “When you hire a young professional, what qualities do you look for?” Iacocca answered that he did not care whether his prospective mentees had any technical expertise, because they would be taught and trained at Chrysler. He said he looked for some kind of creativity, imagination, and artistic discipline — that he needed them to be resourceful.
An important aspect of imagination as your child approaches puberty and the teen years, are the early tendrils of what may emerge as their affinities for life work. These can be tended through exposure to a spectrum of ways in which people live, work and express their passionate calling. This doesn’t have to become a burdensome “extracurricular activity” once we set our minds and antennae to these possibilities. It can be as simple as attuned conversation.
We want to listen to our children with an ear out for the ideals they might wish to embrace — a subtle art that takes into consideration both the egocentric and the altruistic aspects of this age. If your child shows an affinity for building or architecture, be sure she knows the story of Habitat for Humanity; if he’s interested in healing arts, introduce him to Doctors Without Borders; if you have any budding entrepreneurs in your midst, regale them with stories of folks like Will Hauser and Lauren Walters, whose Two Degrees company donates a meal for a hungry child for each nutrition bar sold; and a would-be financier or banker should know about such inspiring new-paradigm organizations as Kiva Microfunds.
For the Moment, On Those First BTS Days…
Setting a calm tone for the day with a few minutes together at the breakfast table can work near-miracles for everyone’s stress-to-joy ratio; it’s worth getting up fifteen minutes early for. Remember, a candle (especially during the winter months when it’s still dark in the morning) helps children carry that cozy, soothing atmosphere of nurturance and beauty with them into their school day. Leaving media out of the morning routine also helps to set a healthier, more supportive tone for the day. And if you do spend time in a car going to school with children, embrace that as a chance for conversation and even singing; particularly when you have a carpool with a gaggle of different ages, what a rich time that can be!
About Marcy Axness
I'm the author of “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers," and also the adoption expert on Mothering's expert panel. I write and speak around the world on prenatal, child and parent development, and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my new book I'm delighted to be speaking at many wonderful conferences all over the world in the coming months, and I'm happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As a special gift to Mothering readers I'm offering "A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool."