In many respects my children are lucky. They have traveled extensively, attended outstanding schools, and have had the occasion to pursue talents and passing fancies. My childhood was not so privileged. I never imagined having had many of these opportunities. And yet I often find myself feeling sad for them and their peers. They feel a stress I also could never have imagined.
As a child, I generally had nothing better to do after school than play with my neighbors. Today, many of the children I know are too busy after school with lessons and sports to idly play.
When I was growing up, my family sat down together for dinner almost every night. Today, even when my children's schedules don't conflict, my husband or I are likely to be stuck in traffic, arriving too late for a family dinner.
When I was in school, many of my classmates tried out a new sport by joining a high school team. Today, children often need to have been playing sports like baseball, basketball or tennis for years to make the team.
Needless to say, we live in trying times, and many of the buffers my generation had no longer exist. Our children not only have less time for fun or family, but they know that their world is polluted, over-populated, and at risk of terrorism. They also have a sense that if they don't try their hardest, determined young people in developing countries around the world are prepared to take their spots in colleges and the working world.
My mind has turned toward thinking about stress in children after my recent experience in writing Bending Toward the Sun, a mother-daughter memoir that will be released September 1. I became more aware of the ways in which my mother's experiences in the Holocaust influenced the stress I experience, and the ways in which I contribute unnecessary anxiety to my own children. I also realize that even if we could wave magic wands and eliminate all stress from our children's lives, we might be ill-advised to do so. The lessons children learn in coping with small stresses make them more resilient; better able to cope with more complex problems later on. But the high levels of stress which many of them experience today deprives them of much of the joy of growing up, and, I fear, will render them ill-prepared to function optimally as adults. Some of this excessive stress, I believe, can be minimized. Toward a more "stress less" existence for our children -- and hopefully I will be the first to be taking my own advice -- here are a few of my suggestions:
1) Accept square pegs. Parents are constantly told what is "normal." They, and their children, are made to feel inadequate when the child does not act like every other kid, or reach milestones at a preordained time. Unless it is clear that a serious problem exists, encourage your child's unique interests, approaches to learning, or ideas about socializing. As adults, we rarely consider it a compliment to be called average, so why should we want our children to be?
2) Encourage children to participate in physical activity. Physical activity reduces stress and helps maintain a healthy balance between mind and body.
3) Help children to find balance in their lives. While academic and/or athletic successes are obviously important, these successes must coincide with other factors in order for children to remain healthy and stress levels to be kept in check. Children need time for nutritious meals, a good night's sleep, and fun. Families should set aside time, when possible, to have fun together as well. While not always possible, it's helpful when parents can model balance in their own lives.
4) Allow children to be bored. Children need free time to discover where their own imaginations will lead them. Educators, parents, and coaches should refrain from scheduling every minute in their day.
5) Help children arrive on time. Children are often reprimanded publicly when they arrive late to school or other activities, adding an unnecessary layer of stress.
6) Expose children to spiritual activities. In an uncertain world, rituals and traditions reduce stress. Children are comforted by sensing that there are forces in the universe greater than themselves.
7) Introduce children to nature and the outdoors. Exposing children to plants, animals, and the stars gives them a sense of wonder. Teaching them to garden and be in nature gives them confidence that they can take care of themselves.
8) Teach children deep breathing and ways to calm themselves. Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises help children, as well as the rest of us, to relieve stress.
9) Encourage children to have a hobby. Stress is reduced when children get to pursue interests and hobbies about which they are passionate, particularly when competition is not the primary goal.
10) When a parent experiences stress due to a traumatic past, expose children to healthy relationships and activities away from the family. As I discuss in Bending Toward the Sun, children can inherit stress from their parents. The impact of my mother's traumatic childhood was transmitted to me, and years later, to my young daughter. Parents can help mitigate the stresses in their own lives from being transmitted to their children by exposing their children to healthy relationships, activities, and points of view outside of the family.
Also, I would recommend that a parent attempt to answer a child's questions regarding the parent's traumatic past. Children imagine the worst when a parent refuses to discuss a painful past, or seems evasive in answering questions. Parents do not need to reveal more than the child asks about, however, or is mature enough to understand.
My long journey in writing Bending Toward the Sun has convinced me that not all stress can, or should, be avoided. But let's do what we can to raise not only high-achieving children, but healthy and happy ones as well.
©2009 Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, author of Bending Toward the Sun: A Mother and Daughter Memoir
Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, author of Bending Toward the Sun: A Mother and Daughter Memoir, is a writer, lawyer, teacher, child advocate, and a member and past President of the Los Angeles County Board of Education.
Gilbert-Lurie also is a founding board member and immediate past President of the Alliance for Children's Rights, a non-profit legal rights organization for indigent children, chair of the education committee for the Los Angeles Music Center, and a board member of several schools including Sierra Canyon and New Visions Foundation. Finally, she has just completed serving as a member of the mayor's task force charged with developing a new cultural plan for the City of Los Angeles.
Previously, Leslie spent close to a decade as an executive at NBC, where, at various times, she oversaw NBC Productions, Comedy, wrote television episodes, and co-founded a new NBC in-house production company, Lurie-Horwits productions. As a lawyer, Leslie worked briefly at the law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg and Tunney and served as a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Law Clerk. She is a graduate of UCLA and UCLA School of Law.
Leslie lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter and step-son.
For more information please visit http://www.bendingtowardthesun.com/