Success Without Stress!
Education Out of the Box
by Win and Bill Sweet
Our grandchildren, Deanna
and Ryan, love to do puzzles. Their first puzzle had six pieces
with knobs on them. We introduce new puzzles slowly so the
children will have a series of small stress-free steps from
the familiar to the unfamiliar with a quick and satisfying
"Ah-ha!" Success with no stress! What a novel idea!
Yes, "Success with
no stress!" is a novel idea. More commonly in our culture
we notice these attitudes:
"My kids need a good
challenge because life is challenging; they need to get used
"No pain, no gain."
"Life should be hard
so the children have to really work at it and push through,
whatever it takes."
"I want my kids' mental
capacity to be stretched to the limit, so they'll experience
struggle and then the relief when they get it."
We cannot support the practice
of adults imposing challenges on children, because imposed
challenges create stress.
Stress is often actually
promoted as a necessary price that must be paid for progress.
This concept continues in spite of the common agreement that
stress is negative. There is an abundance of evidence that
stress causes debilitating physical, mental, and emotional
problems for children, such as illnesses, pent-up anger, emotional
disturbances, ADD/ADHD, poor vision, misbehavior, and depression.
Fifty years ago the incidence
of these problems was markedly lower than today. Children
have not basically changed over this time, but the incidence
of disorders like ADD/ADHD has skyrocketed. What has changed?
It is the cultural environment they experience that has changed.
Even though parents usually
intend to create a positive environment for their child, the
influence of the common culture invades the home causing the
parents to begin imposing unreasonably high expectations.
Some of these expectations are academic knowledge, test scores,
sports performances, musical achievement, and daily living
competency. We can become alert to the culture's influence
by asking, "Do the children REALLY need this?"
Sometimes parents impose
challenges to draw their child away from television, video
games, and the Internet. It is important to protect their
child from these media-based enticements. They create stress
in the child because they run counter to the strong need for
physical movement and play. However, imposing challenges rather
than offering healthy alternatives to the media may just replace
one form of stress with another form of stress.
The well-known Sudbury
Valley School in Sudbury, Massachusetts has been in existence
over thirty years. The school demands courtesy and respect
of others as a governing principle. Another principle is that
the children are not challenged and forced to learn about
subjects in which they have no interest and for which they
are not ready. In the resulting stress-free environment no
student has ever been labeled with ADD or related learning
disorders, and, as a group, the graduates are exceptionally
successful in adult life.
Success with no stress.
This is our principle for everything our grandchildren do
at our house. Forward movements in skill, accumulation of
knowledge, or creative expression need to be a series of steps
that do not generate stress. Why? Because the presence of
stress causes the release of cortisol into the brain, which
harms the growing brain and inhibits optimum learning. Dr.
Carla Hannaford tells us that five minutes of stress generates
so much cortisol in the blood stream that it takes six hours
of stress-free time for it to wear off.
What, then, is the solution?
How do we create stress-free time for a child? Isn't stress
an unavoidable part of education? The answers lie in adopting
new views of education and childhood.
Education Comes From Within
The root meaning of education
is "to lead out," not "to train and impose."
What do we "lead out" from a child, and can that
be done without stress? When we lead out the child's innate
curiosity, creativity, and playfulness, it does not cause
stress. In fact, with stress-free play and movement the brain
is nourished with dopamine that promotes optimal learning
and retention. Positive change in education would develop
environments for optimal learning, stress-free experiences,
joyful attitudes, and the quick "Ah-ha!" It is a
fundamental principle that if given a chance, children's natural
development will lead them in productive ways.
The current cultural concept
of proper education with its emphasis on academics, testing,
and constant directing of the children creates stressed-out
unhappy, walking encyclopedias. Too many parents and teachers
measure their personal self-worth by the academic, musical,
or athletic accomplishments of their children. Instead, a
real measure of value would lie in the level of freedom from
stress and anxiety that the children have.
Stress-free children are
amazing learners, responsibly self-directed, and immensely
creative IF they are protected from the intense, negative
influences of the culture. We all know these influences as
television, computer games, drugs, sex, lack of integrity,
neglect of children.........the list is long. When we take
a good look at most children's childhood, we see there the
roots of the debilitating stress and anxiety that is now prevalent
among children. This is one of the tragedies of our time.
The ideal childhood is
like a second womb—a place of safety, loving nourishment,
and healthy growth. In this view children would transfer from
the mother's womb to a broader womb of family and community,
a place just as safe and protected as the pregnancy womb.
The second womb, carefully attended during childhood, is an
environment that protects the children from influences that
would impose upon them stress and anxiety, and instead, is
an environment that supports their innate curiosity, creativity,
and playfulness. The task for the adults, then, is not to
challenge the child, but to protect the child from being diverted
and controlled by the dizzying carnival of peer competition,
captivating media entertainment, and unnecessary intellectual
pressures. When the second womb is a place of support tended
by caring adults, a child naturally learns and effectively
prepares for a fulfilling and joyful adult life.
The increasing capability
of science is making it possible to study brain, mental, and
physical development much more accurately than ever before.
We now know, scientifically, that when anything is learned
with accompanying stress, the stress is learned along with
the lesson and the stress is recalled when the lesson is applied.
When we explained this to a friend, she gasped and said, "Ah,
ha, that's why I get a knot in my stomach every time I need
to recall the seven times table. I had an awful experience
with that teacher."
Bill's high school track
coach shared recently that he always studied every boy and
learned as much as possible about him. His goal was to help
that boy do just a little better than what he could already
do well or had the obvious potential of doing well. This is
an enlightened principle and honors the individuality and
personhood of each child. If parents nurtured each one of
their children in this way, we would have quite a different
adult population than we find today. Interestingly, the coach
quit education and sought an alternative career when it became
too difficult within the school system to honor the individual
Reducing Academic Stress
Recent studies have shown
• five years of age
is much too early for children, boys especially, to be challenged
• the mechanisms of
the eyes and of the vision centers in the brain are not developed
enough to support reading without injury to the eyes and overall
stress to the child until about age eight. In Denmark reading
is not introduced until age eight and there are virtually
no learning disabilities; at the same time there is 100% literacy
in two languages.
• cursive writing
should be introduced to children before printing. Being forced
to learn printing first is stressful and can cause anxiety,
muscle pain, and backache that can be long-lasting.
Beyond these broadly applicable
guidelines, each child has a unique timeline of natural readiness
for progress. When this timeline of readiness is honored and
supported, the child progresses easily and without stress.
When a high school girl
wrote about the violence in schools, she emphasized that "It
is not surprising that some kids snap. The pressures on us
are terrible." And furthermore, the pressures are largely
unproductive, often destructive. The challenges on children
of all ages, that much of the common culture judges acceptable
for children to bear, are obviously intolerable, given the
social evidence alone. The homicides and suicides among young
people are only a small portion of the terrible price being
paid in our country for the failure to honor the natural physical,
mental, and emotional developmental needs of our children.
Our culture is neglecting the precious person of the child
and, instead, giving the academic arena prime time.
Reducing Family Stress
When adults express their
pleasure about having certain challenges in their lives, the
challenges are generally self-chosen and, if wisely done,
are not stressful. Most challenges that adults think are "good
for kids" are loaded with stress for them.
Today's children will likely
live one hundred years. What is the hurry? The more slowly
maturation takes place in girls and boys, the stronger their
character and qualities will be as adults.
Intellectual academic challenges
are not the only challenges that are inappropriately imposed
on our children. Many children are forced to take care of
themselves when they themselves still need rocking and cuddling.
Children long to be honored and respected for who they inherently
are—the True Self. Yet in most cases attention is paid
only to directing and correcting their children's behavior.
Monitoring your conversations and the quality of your attention
to your children for a day or a week may surprise you. What
categories are given prime time? Are those categories really
important in order to create and sustain a joyful life being
lived in fifty years?
Many parents set their
goal horizon for their children based on the next day or the
next school year, rather than looking forward to a magnificent
life experience of fifty-plus years and all the years before
and after then. Squeezing big expectations into such a short
time is like over-fertilizing a plant; it grows rapidly, but
weakly. Unfortunately, this attitude creates debilitating
pressure and anxiety. The culprit is usually fear. Often there
is fear among parents that their children won't know enough
academically to be competitive in the world, or even just
in their classroom. Without thinking, an environment of anxiety
and lifeless activity is created that actually reduces the
possibilities of building a magnificent life for a child's
entire future. This fear drives the parents to push, prod,
over-schedule and overload the children. Doing this over and
over to children during their childhood almost guarantees
that their adult years will be lived in an attitude of anxious
survival rather than providing the gift of joyful daily living
which calls forth creativity, ingenuity, imagination, cooperation,
personal fulfillment and loving relationships.
Choosing Joy over Stress
Joy is a magnificent gift
for a family. When all family members can let the joy that
they naturally are flow forth, everyone benefits and all learning,
chores, interactions, and routines are quickly and cooperatively
accomplished. Functioning as a family without stress is truly
one of the most important ways to have a joy-full family life.
Anything that might be done with stress can be done, instead,
with fun, fulfillment, and satisfaction when the time is right
and the way of going about it is appropriate to natural development
and the children's interests. If it can't be done that way,
perhaps it just should not be done at all at that time.
Choosing a household goal and family theme of no stress is
to choose the one thing that can facilitate freedom and joy
of all sorts for the life of the family. This pattern sets
in place a pattern for all of life that your children can
carry into their adult lives.
There are many ways to
eliminate stress. Each family should make its own list. Here
are some ideas:
• Give children
the opportunity to "do nothing." They will
benefit greatly from the relaxation, and from having the space
in their lives to be creative and contemplative. When life
starts rolling for children as they become adults, in employment,
relationships, family, and adulthood in general, they may
never again in their lifetime have a chance to simply "be."
This is a most valuable "bank account" for children
to be able to build. If it doesn't happen in childhood, the
opportunity to just "be" without stress may never
again be possible once children reach the adult arena. What
is the hurry? Why rush through life?
• Being bored
is better than being pushed into frustration, struggle, or
anxiety. When Deanna or Ryan voice, "I'm bored,"
we always counter with, "That's wonderful. Now you can
have fun finding something interesting to do." And they
always do find something creative, interesting, and fun. At
the same time they are taking a giant step toward fulfilling
their potential and preserving their creative gifts.
• Buy products
that you determine will give your children a quick "Ah-Ha!"
and opportunity to take short steps forward without frustration.
(Watch the age labeling on products, they are often inappropriate
for your children). If something will be easy and enjoyable,
that can be a plus. Quick success over and over with gentle
progress, taking your lead from the child, is far better than
strides that are too long and become discouraging and frustrating.
Discouragement and frustration lead to a feeling of failure.
It doesn't take too many experiences of failure to turn off
a child's self-confidence and sense of inherent value.
• Discourage competition
and comparison with other children. Although it is nourishing
for children to be with others of various ages, younger and
older, if that association includes comparison or competition,
it becomes stressful.
An acquaintance told us recently that her daughter, Jennifer,
is going to Junior College because she got bored with regular
school. She's taking English, Geography, History of Civilizations,
and Music Appreciation. She is on campus all day, four days
a week and has three to four hours of homework on school days.
Except for the excessive amount of time spent on homework,
that routine could be okay—but Jennifer is only fourteen.
This example is analogous to many situations in children's
daily lives that parents think are "just swell"
for their children. But there can be hidden pressures, sophisticated
ideas, and subtleties that influence the children's consciousness
without any awareness that they are being so influenced.
Jennifer may do fine intellectually,
but that is not the only measure that should be used for appropriateness.
Many emotional experiences in the Junior College environment
are way beyond the scope of what most children of fourteen
can gracefully handle. The stress and strain from these experiences
(often not even recognized) silently slip into dark corners
of the emotional core, just waiting to explode at another
time without awareness of the cause. We encourage parents
to support pursuits that are truly age appropriate so that
their children arrive at adulthood with proper emotional maturity,
strength, and energy to handle the full breadth of the experience
graciously and joyfully.
Protecting the Emotional Core
The tender care and nourishment
of the emotional core of children is an essential element
of a life without stress. Often the mental capacity of children
matures before their interests and emotional readiness. That
doesn't mean, however, that pushing into and through academics,
sophisticated music experiences or grueling athletics is appropriate
or positive, because it often happens at the expense of balanced
emotional security and stability. Academic achievement is
fragile and of little value compared to fulfilling a joyful
life and building a mature and secure emotional core. Of all
assets with which to walk into adulthood, a strong, solid,
and intact emotional core is the most important, because the
emotional core then positively supports the physical, mental,
and spiritual aspects of life. New things can be quickly learned,
relationships will be healthy, wisdom can be accessed, and
joy is part of every day. There is no better legacy a parent
can give a child.
How can the emotional core be properly protected and nourished?
Provide an environment of NO STRESS! This does not mean giving
license to anarchy. It means family living by principle.
We challenge the common
practice of challenging children beyond what is natural, comfortable
and enjoyable for them. Challenges typically cause stress.
When the True Self of children is honored, the children are
not pushed forward too far, too soon into unfamiliar territory.
If children are living in an ideal childhood, they will, without
outside direction, take the next steps of learning at the
right time and in the right way. Accept your challenge
to protect your children for an adult lifetime of joyful fulfillment
by creating for them a stress-free childhood.