Anxious students abound. They are everywhere and of all ages. I’ve seen 3rd graders literally cry from the anxiety of having to take standardized tests on computers. I have conversations more and more often with parents of teens who are stressed and seeking the help of mental health professionals. I cannot help but think back to the years when I was a student and wonder at what seems to be a drastic shift in the emotional health of our youth. Adults in my generation and older discuss our concerns for today’s youth but there is a gap – we really have a hard time understanding what has happened. Some of us wanted to achieve, too, but we weren’t crippled by it.
I am an achiever, a perfectionist who likes to get things right the first time. I was always an honor student, involved in school and outside activities and, eventually, I graduated from college summa cum laude (with high honors). I was stressed sometimes and I certainly made myself a little too crazy about doing well all the time. I was not, however, suffering like I have seen in the young people I encounter. There have always been and will always be youth who are on a quest to achieve, be popular and be at the top of the class. Why is today so different than in the past when the desire to achieve isn’t a new phenomenon?
The difference between today and generations past has to be in the messages young people are receiving from the world around them. What’s the differences between the world of my youth and today? Here are a few:
- Today’s parents are far more aware of the goings on in other people’s lives and have become more competitive with people outside their homes. My parents and parents of their time didn’t know what everyone was doing all the time. All they cared about was what happened in their own homes. They cared that we did our homework, met our responsibilities and had goals for the future. They did not know or care about the achievements of anyone else. There was, you see, no social media to constantly feed human insecurities. I firmly believe that this constant glimpsing at the activities and accomplishments of literally everyone we come in contact with has warped our sense of privacy and our sense of self. Don’t misunderstand – I am certainly a user of social media. You may even be reading this article because you saw it on social media. I just think we have to own what it has done to our focus and priorities. Do you think you don’t pressure your children? Ask yourself this – How often do people who are around your children comment on the achievements of people who really have no impact on your daily lives? Remember being young and wanting approval? When everyone else seems to be doing such amazing things, it is tough on a young person’s self-worth.
- Today’s youth have adult schedules. I’m an adult and I often feel overwhelmed by my own calendar. I cannot image being 8, 10 or 15 years old with appointment after appointment after appointment. They come home and have to go to a variety of planned activities. It seems that it has become rare that the choice of activities and the hours spent at them is limited by adults who understand the limits of what a young person can reasonably do. Years ago, children had to make choices. A child could take dance lessons or play tennis or try out for the school play but, when I was younger, we weren’t permitted to do it all. We picked. Well, we picked some things. Many of us had to go to religious instruction but then we could pick one other activity. Today, everything is treated with equal gravity – being a dancer or a baseball player or soccer star is as important as homework, religious instruction and other lifelong foundational tools. Young people are running all over the place all the time because the message is that it is all crucial. Oh, if only they had to do the lifelong foundational tool and then just pick one more activity…. They might get some free time to recharge.
- Today’s youth don’t spend nearly enough time freely playing, especially in nature. This is really an offshoot of my last point. The children are running here and running there. There’s no time to invent, create and explore freely. It lifts our souls to have free time to play, even when we are adults. A day spent just having fun is all too rare these days. When I was young, we were with friends so often. We were out in the neighborhood or going to each other’s homes. We had downtime when there wasn’t a responsibility other than getting back home by our curfews. The world has changed. There are fears that prevent some of that time wandering the neighborhood. It’s a shame – it has taken something from our children. Parents today need to do what they can to replicate that freedom. There has to be downtime when young people learn to entertain themselves, to enjoy the company of others with no pressure to achieve anything and to notice beauty.
- Today’s institutions promote production of products rather than the wonder of the process. The focus of days spent in school has shifted. In generations past, we were encouraged to create more and take standardized tests less. We spent more time on multi-faceted projects and papers that fired our critical thinking skills. Months of our school year was not spent on test preparation. Instead, we had life preparation. Today, only the product matters – the grade on the paper, the score on the test, how that score reflects upon the school, the town, the state. We have lost sight of the fact that children are involved in that process. Children need time to be creative and to hone critical thinking skills but not on paper. They need to fine tune the process of thought. Constant having to spit out scores is impeding their development of thinking skills. When you can critically think, you can better reason and figure out how to cope.
Whenever I speak to either teachers or parents, I am always asked if I believe that the pendulum will swing back. Will the demands on our children become more reasonable? I tell them that the only way that will happen is either for today’s adults to realize the harm and dial back the demands placed on the children or for today’s youth to grow up and want better for the next generation…. I hope it doesn’t take that long.
This article is the 3rd in a series about Today’s Generation Gap. Click on the titles to read past articles:
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