We live in a time and culture that’s intense. As a parent, a citizen of the United States, a neighbor, and even an employee, there is pressure. Pressure to perform. Pressure to look perfect. Pressure to be perfect. We see it on commercials, in magazines, and in social media. How many Rodan and Fields friends do you have? We want to stay looking youthful, while making more money, and proving that we are valuable. It’s a hard game to keep up with!
Our children are not immune. If your child attends a public school, then much of the spring is spent preparing for the big T-cap/ TNReady tests. They practice taking tests. Why? So, they too can perform and get those scores high enough so teachers can prove that they also are performing. Students need to get into honors’ classes in school so they can get into more honors classes. Kids need to earn over a 4.0 to get into the right college so they can rush on the lead the perfect life. We live in a competitive society and we start young!
Why do we have such high rates of mental illness and suicide in this country even among the affluent? Since 2007, suicide rates for adults in Tennessee went from 13.7 % per 100,000 to 16.2% in 2016 according the Tennessee Department of Health and Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network. Even more disturbing is that suicide rates in youth ages 10-24 went from a rate 7.39 in 2005 in Tennessee to 10.25 in 2016 according to the TN Department of Health. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and the national rates have been steadily increasing as well according to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. We have to ask ourselves why and reflect on best parenting and self-care practice in order to turn this trend around.
The intensity and expectation to perform makes both youth and adults feel inadequate. We feel stressed and we barely have time to slow down and think about best practices. Rushing around, leaving little time for true downtime, neglecting our emotional health, and taking on too many tasks is not producing the type of society we can be proud of. In fact, we are a pretty dysfunctional society if you compare stats to other developed nations. Working in a school and seeing the changes and increasing mental and behavioral health needs, even just within the last 5 years, we can see that kids are stressed.
We are taught that we need perfect. We recognize honor roll students. We hyper-focus on data and testing at a very young age. We celebrate being involved in the most extracurriculars. We want medals. And, we value superficial qualities like clothes, shoes, cars, money, and beauty. And, it’s reinforced over and over again on social media. We are taught to want to look different. Hair dyes, skin products, lotions, make-up, diet products, clothes, shoes, jewelry, shiny things….the list goes on. Many pockets of society are living with a superficial sense of security.
But, based on what we are seeing in schools and what’s happening in our society, we may need to reevaluate the meaning of true self-worth while we still have time to influence our children. We don’t need to be perfect, look perfect, or even act perfect. If anything, we need to relax a little more, have a little bit more fun, and maybe just be a little more imperfect.
It was March 25, 2015 that I had a mind-shift. We went from being a pretty typical American family to having an 8-year-old being diagnosed with a brain tumor 3 years ago. Life came to a screeching halt, and it’s never returned to what it was. And while our brain tumor battle isn’t over and it’s a source of unwanted stress, Brody’s brain tumor was a game-changer too, and in a good way. There are many moments from that spring that I will never forget, and many I wish I could! But there a couple moments that are burned in my brain and that changed me as a person and parent.
The one thing you really want going into brain surgery is for your child to come out breathing. You just want them to be ok. The first moment of absolute clarity was seeing Dr. Savage after the 9 1/2 hour surgery. My husband and I both bear-hugged her when she told us he was awake and talking! Then, walking into the waiting room where our family was the only group left, I burst into tears. When my mom asked what was wrong, I sobbed that I was just so, so grateful. I have never experienced such tears of absolute joy and relief. So, first, being grateful for those around you is really the only thing that matters. The ones we love, our relationships, are truly the only things that matter in the end. If we lived every day showing love and appreciation to these people, we would all live more fully.
Another moment of clarity was coming home for the first time from the hospital. I was rushed and I remember pulling into the driveway in our nice neighborhood where most neighbors have meticulous yards and landscaping. Our small yard was overgrown and needed to be mowed….and I didn’t care. I realized looking at the dirty house and long grass that it didn’t matter. It wasn’t important. Suddenly, all the random stuff that we normally give time and value to wasn’t important at all. Who cares about the long grass, the floors I want replaced, and the dog hairs in the corners? We just wanted Brody to be able to come home, to be able to run again, and for the tumor to be benign. When your child is sick or in the hospital, you suddenly don’t care about those surface-value things.
And lastly, there was one, just one goal, Brody set for himself before his big surgery: he wanted to be able to run again. He didn’t say that he wanted to run track and finish first , play soccer in high school, or finish a 10k. He just had that one goal, to be able to run again period. (Interestingly enough, and unbeknownst to him, many children are not able to run again after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in the cerebellum. So, being able to run again was a really important goal that he intuitively set for himself. ) And, Brody was able to run just a few, short weeks after his surgery, not fast but a jog through the yard one foggy morning. Tears filled my eyes as his simple wish was granted. (And, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Brody continues, at age 11, to not only run but run really fast in track and soccer.) So, really our goals don’t need to be over-the-top and we should let our kids set their own goals.
While we, as parents, want to witness our children excel or even stand out, maybe just running is enough, regardless of how fast they’re going. Sometimes, we are the ones to get caught up. Sometimes, it’s the adults that add the pressure when our child just wants to run. It’s especially hard to check our behavior if it’s something we are passionate about, but our children don’t need the added pressure of having to perform in school or sports. Just let them set their own goals and take some ownership. When we take over and tell our kids what hobbies they should have, what place they should finish, and even what grades they should make, it can cause an internal conflict. Kids can’t always live up to our expectations. So, what can we expect?
I think we expect them to be the nice kid. Keep it simple because so much of life is out of our hands. When we try to be perfect, we will be let down because we are inherently imperfect. With so many things in life out of our control, our manners, our attitude, and our behavior is something we can do. Being nice, showing kindness, practicing gratitude, and giving forgiveness is something everyone can do and feel good about. These values don’t go out of style. And, they will matter in the end because we don’t have to be perfect to be nice.