In the past six months, Ontario universities have lost students who took their lives. We can’t begin to wonder why or guess the circumstances. But what we can do is find ways to improve. We, the adults, we need to do better.
The stress that our youth face is no joke. Ten years ago, as a teacher, I saw Grade 8 girls put so much pressure on themselves to get marks as close to 100% as possible that I worried that they might have a breakdown before they even got to high school; that was before the pressures of social media. A few years later, I watched a parent criticize a Grade 8 son for his 80% average because “it isn’t good enough for the top universities.” Yes, he was only in Grade 8. And, as a parent, I have watched my son and his friends devour their books so that they can have the 90% averages needed for university entrance while accumulating hundreds of volunteer hours and working part-time. I have read resumes of university students who make my own – a resume of someone who has been in workforce for over 30 years – look dull.
Today, without meaning to, we have put pressure on kids as young as 12 and 13 to start thinking about their career choices. We expect our kids to be well-behaved, have high marks, play a sport or instrument (and often more than one), volunteer at school or in the community, and, if they are able, work at a part-time job. Every parent wants his/her child to be the best, but is the best right for every single kid? And when exactly do our kids get to be kids?
I often feel that, as parents, we have lost touch with what really matters in our children’s lives. We need to let kids play – not an organized soccer practice or robotics club kind of play, but completely unstructured “run around and be silly with your friends” kind of play. Let them complain about being bored because kids can always find something to do; it may not be what we want them to do, but they’re making their own decisions and, if they get in trouble, so be it. Let them face the consequences and help them to understand and accept those consequences. It’s part of growing up. So is failure. By all means, we need to support our children at school so help them with their homework – if they ask for it – but don’t do it for them. And if they don’t get the mark that everyone wanted on a test or assignment, let it go. We need to stop helicoptering around our kids and rescuing them every time things don’t go they way we want. We need to let them fail if we want them to succeed. With our support and encouragement from their teachers and other adults in their lives, our kids will figure it out.
This is what builds resilience in our kids: being independent, making their own mistakes, failing, and using each day to try something new. Resilience is most definitely not gained from larger class sizes. If that happens, we will have taken away time from the second-most important group of people who interact with our children: their teachers. (And let’s be real about this: there are many kids who see their teachers more than their parents.) Increasing class sizes increases the demands and the pressures that we are placing on our youth. The failure that is bound to happen comes from our government’s decision to increase class sizes and, since that decision is not our youth’s control, it is only going to lead to greater stress for our kids through high school and more urgent feelings from their parents who will feel an even greater need to hover around them, protect them and help them get through high school.
As mental health is becoming, if it is not already, a crisis among young adults, whether in the work force or at school, we – the parents, the teachers, the coaches – must prepare our students for this step in their lives. But we do that through the connections that we have for our youth, through our care and understanding of who they are and what they need to succeed. We do not build resilience by creating larger class sizes where kids – yes, kids – become one of too many to teach and get to know. But we can build resilience by letting kids be kids and enjoy their high school years. We build resilience by spending time with them, guiding them and allowing them to see that they have our support, the support that they will carry into the next stage of their lives.