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School is how we train our kids for what to expect from life when they reach adulthood. We should be concerned, then, about what exactly we’re teaching them.
Between helicopter parenting, jarringly early starts to the school day, overloaded book bags, overcrowded extracurricular schedules, unhealthy school lunches and, even at these tender ages, the crushing weight of participation in late-stage capitalism hanging over their heads, it’s little wonder anxiety and depression are appearing more frequently than ever among our youngest generations.
Helicopter Parenting and Jam-Packed Schedules
The phenomenon we call “helicopter parenting” is possible in part because of how vastly different life is for youngsters today than it was even one generation ago. The financial realities of growing up today have caused a significant disconnect between how youngsters in 2018 perceive life and how our parents did.
Helicopter parents are present in their children’s lives to a fault. They mean well, but they tend to push their kids too hard, too early in life, and tend to become omnipresent to a distracting degree in the academic and even social lives of their kids. Many older adults in America still believe any financial or existential problem can be remedied with the right application of effort and hard work.
The disconnect is this: Excelling in education is no longer enough to “guarantee” success in life. Moreover, young Americans today must work longer hours than their parents, even in the same line of work, and start saving much more, earlier, to match their parents’ financial success. This can be difficult for older Americans to fathom because they were taught — and so it was at the time — that this country is a meritocracy where anybody with a work ethic can rise to the top of their chosen field. This is not so any longer.
What this means is that helicopter parents are, in their well-meaning way, propping up an unattainable myth. A perfect GPA, a good SAT score and a nice raft of extracurriculars simply aren’t enough. You’re not imagining it — wealth isn’t scarce in America, but opportunity increasingly is.
A compelling body of evidence in psychology lends credence to the hypothesis that helicopter parenting, especially in a country languishing in economic austerity for anybody not born into relative wealth, plus academic and economic opportunity, fuels anxiety and depression in children to a significant, but not surprising, degree.
Physical Duress and Lack of Sleep
The world of pediatric medicine has been ringing alarm bells for years about the harsh toll that early school days take on developing bodies and minds. During the summer, young students are rightly encouraged to relax a little bit and engage in a bit of self-directed education on their own schedule. But the terribly jarring transition between lazy summer days and the start of a new school year doesn’t seem to get easier with time. If anything, the damaging effects only seem to compound themselves.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, delaying the start of school in the mornings by just one hour tends to result in students arriving on time more regularly — plus arriving better-rested, more clear-headed and better prepared for a day of concentration. Pediatricians and sleep experts recommend children get nine hours of sleep for the best chance at developmental and academic success. Unfortunately, well under half of American students get that much sleep, and 58 percent get seven or fewer hours of sleep at night.
According to these same experts, sleep loss over extended periods of time — over the course of an entire school year, say, and especially with extracurricular activities extending into the evening hours — tends to result in lower test scores, higher rates of suicidal thoughts and depression and even childhood obesity.
This isn’t the only type of physical duress American students are subjected to, either. Although massively heavy textbooks and book bags are becoming less common in the age of the tablet and computer-based learning, the fact remains: Students tend to lug around more weight than is healthy for them, and it’s usually in backpacks that are anything but ergonomically designed. It’s not uncommon for children to carry the equivalent of 40 percent of their body weight while at school, which can have lasting consequences for their health and peace of mind.
Unhealthy Foods in American Schools
America made modest progress during the Obama era when it came to the healthfulness of the food available in our children’s schools. Then the Republican Party got its hands on every branch of government. Since Trump’s inauguration, the federal government has actively walked back the progress we’ve made in, for example, curbing the amount of salt and sugar in our kids’ school lunches.
To put the health of our children on the line for something as petty and misguided as the GOP’s relentless war on regulation is — or rather should be — an act of criminal-level cruelty. But here we are. Starving our kids of healthful foods is just one of the consequences of slashing $200 billion from education spending in 2018.
It’s true that feeding our kids healthy foods in schools costs a lot of money. It’s also true that this is something that shouldn’t have to be measured in dollars. If there’s one place where an American child should be able to count on receiving a square meal, it’s an American public school — which, if it was ever the envy of the Free World, now resembles a tragic cautionary tale.
We can turn to science here, too, as if we really needed to. Poor dietary patterns are strongly linked to “poorer mental health in children and adolescents,” according to researchers.
It’s hard to see a silver lining here. The rise of anxiety and other developmental problems in American youth is a byproduct of neglecting our public school system. And this is a byproduct of cutting taxes for corporations and billionaires, and that is a byproduct of trusting Conservatives and profitmongers with economic stewardship.
Whoever takes the reigns of government next time around has a lot of damage to fix. That means next time somebody says, “Our children are our future,” we need to stand as one and ask them to prove they mean it.