Do Your Kids Need Time to Daydream?

A perfect bookend to last week’s post on parent and student responsibility in education, today’s topic comes from a recent USC study that shows daydreaming leads to improved outcomes, even academic ones, among children. The aptly named paper, “Rest Is Not Idleness,” shows through brain scans that rest time for children is not wasted; rest provides time for inward reflection, which is key to learning and retention, understanding, and even unrelated academic priorities, like moral judgement and deflecting stress.

A recent article about the study in USC News says, “Children need the time and skills for internal reflection, and excessive focus on the outside environment due to activities or living conditions may hinder the development of emotional learning and well-being, as well as abstract, moral and social-emotional thinking, biasing youths toward morally “shallow” values, the researcher explained.” As a lifelong daydreamer, I have long felt that time shut off from the world, away from everything, gave me a chance to make connections to things that happened in the outside world, and allowed me to assess situations according to my own thoughts and standards. Even as a daydreaming child, the time spent in my head I considered a non-judgemental activity, away from expectations and competition. One of the most fabulous – and important – things about daydreaming is there is no right or wrong way to do it. Everyone does it in his or her own particular way.

This is not to say that daydreaming time must come during the school day, although children do benefit, according to the study, from breaks from task-oriented work. But I think as parents we should look to daydreaming – or lack thereof – as a cultural question. Are parents and families giving children enough downtime to reflect, be alone, stare out the window? What about your kids?

Brain-rest time for school children has been obsessing me lately, partly because I’ve also been on a bender about the length of public school lunches, which, from a very informal poll I have taken from parents across the country, averages about 15 minutes – that’s from the time they enter the cafeteria to the time they walk out the door. A fifteen minute school lunch, already proven in many schools to be deprived of most any nutritional value, is most likely devoid of any social value, either, since time at the table to eat the food (especially if standing in line to purchase the school’s food) and enjoy social company is limited to about seven to ten minutes at the most.

When we educate kids, whether in school or at home, we are showing them not only the information they will need to be responsible and employable citizens, we are also showing them what we value as a culture and a society. With little time to socialize at lunch (recess time is half what it was when I was a child, too), and a day packed full of activities, lessons, school, expectations and achievements, are we showing our kids how to be happy and healthy human beings? Do we as parents model downtime as an example for them?

Achievement and success are two vital parts of a great education – but we must be careful not to confuse outward gains with the inward gains that will produce not only successful children, but kids with strong imaginations, minds, and souls. These inward gifts can be taken to any college, and can hammer out the good and bad times of any life. While outward success is wonderful, we parents would be remiss to overstep the importance of helping our child achieve an inner life, too. Should we worry about the “drone” affect, the taking away of all life’s simple, gentle pleasures and replacing them with assignments and assessments – to shovel in food and rush off to the next task?

Life is to be savored, right? Do your kids have the time to daydream?

Are Parents Falling Down on the Job?

In yesterday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, college freshman and Gates Millennium Scholar, Coca-Cola Scholar, and Dell Scholar Mpaza S. Kapembwa writes that, when it comes to education, he believes American parents are falling down on the job. Overly concerned with self-esteem and happiness, he writes, American parents value “feeling good above true knowledge, wisdom and understanding.” Citing South Korean educational achievement as an example, he calls for American parents to be more Tiger Mother than best friend, and to be more concerned and involved with the success – the real success – of their children. Who do parents blame? Certainly not themselves. “Parents see their dreams not being realized in their children and they lash out at the dream snatcher — the teacher.”

Is there a grain of truth to this? Or more than a grain?

Having been both a public and private school parent, I have witnessed a few parents act terribly toward teachers and administration – the kinds of acts that centered only the well-being of their child, without taking into account the entire group (or the teacher’s feelings). But these are the rare and obvious mistakes, the ones where the parent insecurity and self-interest blare so loudly it can’t be ignored. The other kind of self-interest, though, is more insidious and more difficult to pin down. When Mr. Kapempwa writes, “I fear we may be expelling learning from our schools because it is not pain-free for all students,” it rings true. But the question is, it rings true for who?

Do you feel that we parents are too easy on our kids? Do you feel that you are too easy, or are there parents you know who consistently value empty good feelings over hard work? How responsible are your kids for their own learning? My father was a teacher, and I remember my parents coming down on the side of the teacher most times, but there were a few instances when they listened to our grievances, and sided with us. I remember my parents going to teachers to make alternate arrangements, and I remember my mother, in particular, fighting – and winning – to get me out of a classroom with a teacher she thought was cruel. Do these qualify as not being on the side of learning, of blaming the teacher? Or is this advocating for the student’s needs? And how do we know which is which?

Perhaps Mr. Kapembwa is young enough to say so blatantly what the grownups try to tiptoe around: the teachers come to school ready to teach, but many children are not ready to learn. Yet even this assumption – that all teachers are prepared and that students are not – can be complex. What about children experiencing instability at home, whether it be fighting or divorcing parents, poverty, abuse, or a combination? According to the Census Bureau, 36% of American children are living in poverty. What about students who are homeless, or very nearly so? And what about their parents’ ability to care? Studies show that parental involvement at school is connected to student success, but parent involvement is also related to parent income and education.

Maybe it’s been said one too many times, but it bears repeating: in countries where the culture supports the parents, the parents support the schools, and overall, the children do well. Kapembwa is right to note that education is a triangle between parents, teachers and students, and when one corner isn’t holding up their end of the bargain, the triangle collapses. But it’s much harder to dig deep to understand the root causes of why the triangle is falling down in the first place.