I often ask people, if they had ever thought of committing suicide in their academic life, and a reasonable number of them say ‘yes’, even the ones, who had been high achieving students in their lives. According to a study done by the National Institute of Mental Health, USA, suicide is the third leading cause of death in youngsters aged 15 to 24. Another study, conducted in Australian High Schools on students aged 12 to 14 years, revealed that students with low self esteem, depressed mood and perceptions of failure may be at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviours. Our children live under enormous pressures these days. They are on a constant battle to survive against all odds. Almost every other child in this world undergoes a painful, psychologically uncomfortable and often dehumanizing experience in order to receive education. I believe there are at least three kinds of pressures that work upon them: academic pressure, parental pressure and peer pressure.
How does Academic Pressure Work?
The first kind of pressure that works upon our children is academic pressure. They are almost always burdened. They have to carry a bag filled with six to eight textbooks and notebooks for each subject. Homework is something that most of them do not enjoy and cannot escape from. These poor children cannot afford to be absent from class, even if they are not well. According to a survey, children aged between 11 and 14 do an average of three-hour homework, in order to survive and remain acceptable in their schooling systems. They carry a bag which is about 40% of their body weight. According to British Osteopathic Association: “Children should never carry more than about 15% of their own body weight. The long term effects from carrying heavy bags include strains on the neck and shoulder leading to headaches, fatigue and an early development of poor posture along with strain to arms and wrists.”
Majority of school going children hardly go for a morning or evening walk and do not experience the pleasant breeze and fresh oxygen, which is required for better brain functioning. Almost every second day is a test or some marked assignment. About 20% of their school days are allocated for exams. In between, there are such competitions as spelling bee and declamation contests requiring students to prepare five to six hours a day with immense pressure to win each of them. Tuitions are a routine, which they have to follow. And there are tests at tuitions, too. Students, who concentrate on their academics, look too serious, exhausted and often ignorant about what is happening in the world or in their families. They tend to forget themselves for the love or fear of exams. All that is important in their lives is to fulfill the academic demands at any cost. These poor children receive respect from society on the basis of their academic performance and not on the basis of their good intentions or great ideas.
It is generally believed that teachers cannot contain more than two subjects, while students are able to accommodate the diverse and often unconnected pieces of knowledge from eight subjects. Many children face immense learning difficulties, as they are not allowed to express their understanding in the language they know well. Classwork that is demanded on a particular pace with a particular level of perfection from every child becomes an instrument of torture. How strange it is to offer a break of twenty minutes in a school day of six hours. Sometimes even this twenty minutes break is also withdrawn from a child, who needs additional time for making up the academic work. If the school is located at a distance, then the travelling time in school transport adds to their miseries.
How does Parental Pressure Work?
Another pressure that badly affects children is parental pressure. I have heard many children saying: “I wish I was born free.” Parents generally have very high and non-flexible expectations from their children. It has become hard for many parents to trust their children’s abilities and intentions, when they fail to do well in exams. In a majority of cases, the relationship between parents and children relies on the grades the children receive in their exams, which is so very unfortunate.
Given the above mentioned facts, it appears that children in today’s world are doing two jobs. They are employed at two places: school and home. They cannot take a day off at their will and are often not compensated for their work. They live a life where friendships, questioning, experimentation and wandering around are hardly appreciated. They are not encouraged for their natural curiosity and qualities of giving, sharing and frankness. Instead, they are chained to follow an agenda and a routine that is set for them without their consent. All children go through this, until they become able to exercise their own will and experience their independence. But many poor children are lost in this battle. Their creative spark is successfully extinguished by the collective efforts of parents and schools.
One of the ambitions of parents is to get their child admitted into a brand school. Under this vision, mothers start dreaming about some of the renowned schools already at the time of their pregnancies. Imagine the terrible pressure the poor child will be born with. She or he will be sent to preparation centres at the age of two years, in order to pass the entrance test of his/her parents’ dream school. Once the child is admitted, the vicious never-ending cycle of academic stress, competitions and loads of homework is on the way.
Much of the conversation that takes place between parents and children is governed by the following questions or instructions: “What happened in your school today? How was your test today? What grade did you get in the last paper? What is the homework today? When is the next test? Change your school uniform. Do your Salah. Have your lunch and, please, do it quickly. Get ready for tuition.”
Another form of parental pressure is their demand for discipline and maintaining a tidy and mess-free home. Girls in particular become a victim of this wish. In many families, the obsession to tame the children for manners and obedience in their early childhood supersedes any other wish of meaningful learning or relationship.
Many parents demand their children to choose a particular professional field, without considering the child’s interests. A majority of parents make their children realize that they spend a lot of money on their education, and that children have to pay back through getting good grades. When children somehow fail to meet the demands of their parents, they feel bad about themselves and lose self confidence.
How does Peer Pressure Work?
Peer pressure plays a phenomenal role in the lives of children. Children want to be liked, accepted and appreciated by their peers more than anyone else in the world. This peer consciousness causes some positive and negative influences on their personality. They learn from their peers and become interested in doing things, which are being liked by their peers. Mark Twain once put it beautifully in his witty style: “I have always paid the school master for the education of my kids, but these are the school boys who have taught him.”
Sometimes good habits and trends are initiated and reinforced by groups of children, while at other times it is vice versa. A child being a part of his social group gets influenced by his or her peers. At times, a child may not feel comfortable in adopting something from the peers. But the fear of being unpopular, disapproved and rejected by the social group surrounds the child and exerts immense pressure on him/her.
Although many children experience some sort of peer pressure, they usually do not realize it. Peer pressure takes a child into a complex state of varied feelings, ranging from fears and rage to hate, hope and jealousy. If a child is not confident enough, his/her self image will be severely influenced by the kind of treatment he/she receives from the peers. Sometimes, children stop pursuing their genuine natural interests, because they feel that they will be ridiculed for their interests. Often, many children tend to do things which are not of their choice but the desire of the group. Smoking is one such example, which a lot of boys and girls initiate, in order to look smart and cool. Sometimes, they smoke to seek additional appreciation from their peers. For some children, smoking becomes their social passport. Some children try to impress their peers through smoking or through any other activity, which is forbidden by the adults.
Peer pressure may be unspoken or unintentional. Sometimes a child may feel pressured not because peers are asking him to do a certain thing but the child himself feels that if he will not do a certain thing, he might be considered silly.
Nobody likes to be rejected by the equals. When children fail to cope with peer pressures or, in other words, do not conform to group norms, they isolate themselves or restrict their interaction with few class fellows. Many do not create friendships; rather, they limit themselves to acquaintanceships. A reasonable number of children willingly or unwillingly adopt what is being desired by their peers and conform to group norms.
One of the major causes of negative peer pressure is comparison between children. Many teachers and parents do it continuously in subtle ways. Some do it rather explicitly. When we do not recognize children, as who they really are, and fail to own them unconditionally, they learn to doubt themselves. Their confidence weakens and they become increasingly sensitive to the approval from their peers.
How Can We Reduce Academic Pressure?
- We need to believe that academics are not everything. A successful person is not the one who gets good grades, but a person who is well-rounded, happy and enjoys healthy body and mind with a vision to strive for.
- Schools should reduce the number and size of exams and introduce alternatives to formal testing like portfolio development and mechanism of self-assessment. This will help to eradicate the tuition culture and children will have some free time for family and other meaningful activities.
- Curriculum should be made child-friendly and flexible. There should be more opportunities of recreation, and the academic process must capitalize on students’ interests and experiences.
- Early education process must be carried out in the language children are proficient in. Education must not demand a child to switch the medium of his thinking.
- If we cannot reduce the weight of school bags, at least we can replace them by trolley school bags, like it is done by children in Europe.
How Can We Reduce Parental Pressure?
- Children are born with countless interests. Identify and respect the interests of your children and facilitate them to pursue their interests.
- Learn to trust children unconditionally. Accept your children for what they are. Help your children pursue their dreams, instead of forcing your own vision onto them.
- Never equate your children’s intelligence and creativity with their academic results. Grades tell us nothing about a child’s talents or creative potentials. Appreciate your children for what they do enthusiastically.
- Acknowledge the fact that your children are loaded with work, and that they need some time to relax. Keep an eye on yourself to ensure that you do not become the one who over-burdens your child.
- Instead of throwing questions on children and asking them to give a report of their day, wait and understand their situation and problems.
How Can We Reduce Peer Pressure?
- Give children a positive, stress-free and emotionally comfortable environment. They are likely to interact with their peers in a congenial manner when they are relaxed.
- Train children to realize why they feel how they feel. Help them recognize their different states of feelings. They will learn to be empathetic through your wise and friendly facilitation.
- Eliminate all forms of individual competitions and never use individual comparison as a strategy for motivation. In fact, it is something that de-motivates them and affects their relationship with their peers.
- Engage with your child in open and meaningful discussions to prepare them for dealing with the issues they might face in society.
- Make your child exceptionally confident and courageous. Confidence will enable a child to become who he or she really is, without feeling devalued or becoming dependent on the approval of peers.
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