When Did Stress Become the Norm for Seventh Graders?

Inside Leadership

When Did Stress Become the Norm for Seventh Graders?

A woman came to my office. She was about to cry. "What's wrong?" I enquired. She blurted out, "Rabbi, my daughter just doesn't have time to study for a Bat Mitzvah. We decided we aren't doing one." I was bewildered. Her daughter had been in our religious school for many years. I asked the only question that came to mind, "What is filling her time?"

"She, both of us...and tutors...are up until midnight every night doing homework. We can't handle anything more." She went on to share with me the level of stress that fills her daughter's life, and by extension, her own. Her unhappiness and the unhappiness of her daughter were palatable. I gently reminded her that it was only seventh grade. When did seventh grade become the year a child worries about getting into AP classes, so that they can be accepted into the perfect university, so that they can get into the perfect graduate program, so that they can then land their perfect job? It should be a time when education is solely focused on teaching the joys of learning – but there is no joy when a child gets an unbearable amount of homework and families are focused solely on grades. I suggested she find her daughter another school, one focused on a love of learning instead of filling her nights with needless homework. She looked at me like I was insane and thanked me for my sage advice.

Her daughter never had a Bat Mitzvah. I am sure the two of them are still doing homework late into the night and I am sure their already high levels of stress have only increased. Some parents understand the need to de-stress their children's lives even if they don’t know how to accomplish this goal. Sadly, I have also encountered parents who view stress as a necessary element to success. They argue that the world is competitive and the sooner their children learn to live with stress, the sooner they will be able to achieve success. My heart breaks as I question, at what cost? Brain studies have proven that stress changes the wiring and chemistry of the brain, effecting long-term brain health and increasing the risk of depression in adulthood. While the effects of stress might lead to “A”s, they also can lead to mental health issues. 

At Temple Kol Tikvah, we have begun to address the stresses in our children's lives. In sixth grade, as part of our B’nai Mitvzah Revolution (BMR) program, we offer families two programs that focus on stress and conflict resolution and we continue similar programs into high school. The BMR programs focus on conversations and exercises between parents and children that conclude with a ritual, the tying of Tzitzit or the laying of Tefillin, and guided meditations.  

We begin our first program, “Tzitzit and Stress,” by surveying the parents and children about stressors in their lives with both groups focusing on what stresses the children. Possible answers include homework, time, technology, friends, puberty, fitting in, extracurricular activities and money. Afterwards, we separate the adults from the children and have discussions about specific stresses. Once everyone has shared thoughts in peer groups, we mix adults with children, never allowing an adult to be in a group with their own child. We have found this allows for children to talk openly about what stresses them because they become the "teachers" for adults who are not their parents. The relaxed learning that occurs through these sessions becomes a valuable resource for both parents and children. As a professional staff, we believe it is our job to help our community’s children develop into healthy young adults who can balance the responsibilities of life with grace and humility. It is only by confronting the issues that affect our children that we can accomplish this goal.             

           

Jon Hanish is the senior rabbi at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, CA. He has written articles for the CCAR Journal, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the Union for Reform Judaism’s online publications. He chairs the West Valley Rabbinic Task Force and sits on the Executive Committee of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. While not always successful, he is on a mission to lessen the stress in his life.

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