Childhood isn’t preparation for life, it is life
When my daughter told me she felt stressed one Saturday morning, I did a double take. She’s 10. She sleeps with a stuffed bear and has drumsticks and dirty socks strewn across her bedroom floor.
In my eyes, she’s still a child. Yet here she was, “stressed”. I asked her what it felt like (“Like I can’t really enjoy myself”) and why (“Because I have to write a speech and then do all this maths homework”).
I wrapped my arms around her and declared it a homework-free day. Instead, we went to the park. Later, we baked her favourite cake and read The Encyclopaedia of Immaturity together, in which we learnt how to make vegie-proof tongue covers and take photos that look as if your head’s fallen off.
That night, when I looked at the speech topics set by the Department of Education, my heart plummeted: “Multiculturalism in the media”, “Asylum seekers” and “When does a migrant become Australian?”
My daughter is a deep thinker and a voracious reader. But she isn’t auditioning for host of Lateline or membership of the UN.
Now, I’m not one to blame teachers – they’re dedicated and overworked unsung heroes – but I think they (and me, and society at large) are being driven by an increasingly narrow definition of success. (Is there any parent who didn’t pore over the My School league tables, or a teacher who wasn’t compelled to grill their students for the NAPLAN tests?)
Recently, a high-school principal told me her greatest challenge was the growing anxiety levels among students. Pastoral care, not academic results, had become her focus, because two pupils committed suicide at her previous school.
A clinical psychologist confirmed there are high levels of anxiety among this coached and extra-curricular driven generation. The good news, she says, is they can verbalise it.
“Mum, I just want to be a kid,” my friend’s 11-year-old son told her after he spent hours on a PowerPoint presentation differentiating between palaeontologists, geomorphologists and geophysicists (no, me neither).
Remember when childhood was all about wonder and curiosity and mud fights? Now it’s about marks and measures and motivation levels.
So, who’s to blame? Well, me for a start, because I get sucked in by this philosophy: I’m thrilled when my daughter aces a test or is chosen for the debating team.
And yet, in the letter I wrote on her last birthday (as I do every year) for her keepsake book, I find the following: “Sweetheart, last week I was in a hurry in the supermarket and pushed past an old lady. Instead, you stopped and watched to see if she could reach the pasta sauce on the top shelf. You are so accomplished, but most of all, I love the goodness in you.”
Our generation of hot housing parents needs to recalibrate our notion of success. My greatest achievement in life isn’t the mark I got in high-school English, but the fact I still quite like my husband, our kids are healthy and we have a few friends who continue to tolerate us.
Let’s commend our kids for who they are – not what they achieve. Yes, we need to teach them the key learning areas, but also to show them the real stuff: tolerance, resilience, compassion, loyalty, humour. Childhood isn’t preparation for life, it is life.
Catch Angela Mollard on Weekend Today, Sundays at 7am on the Nine Network.
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