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7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Adolescents, Depression, Suicide, and other troubling trends

Here's a recent article from the Atlantic on teenage suicides in Palo Alto. It got me thinking about my own students and about the stresses that teenagers in high achieving, competitive urban schools face. In the last few years, I've seen a number of students suffer from different mental illnesses: depression, self-harming, anxiety, eating disorders, and even thoughts of suicide. I've often wondered whether the pace and the level of stimulation that I deal with at my current school is sustainable -- on many occasions, I've thought that we humans are not designed to do so much and to hold ourselves to such high expectations. It's just too exhausting.

Here are some of the issues that I think affect teens (and perhaps adults as well).

1. Over stimulation or Hyper stimulation: There are only so many hours in a day and there is only so much that our minds and our bodies can absorb and deal with on a daily basis. When we have days of non-stop activity, coupled with information overload and incessant sensory stimulation, our bodies and brains become over-stressed. If this continues on a daily basis without breaks, then our bodies and brains literally fray and break down.
Possible antidotes: Limit technology, more time to do nothing (down time), more time in nature, more quiet time and rest

2. Loneliness and Isolation: With parents working longer hours and spending more time on laptops and phones, kids are increasingly disconnected from their parents. Our kids need real conversations, close conversations, with their parents. They need to feel loved, cared for, and valued -- not just for their grades and their performances, but for who they are as people. I have too many students who feel isolated from everyone -- they don't feel close to their parents, and they don't have a close network of friends whom they can really trust. As parents, we can't solve their friendship problems, but we can be there for them to let them know that they are loved.
Possible antidotes: Put away those phones and spend time talking and relaxing with your kids. Stay close to your children, and make sure that grandparents and extended family members are around as well. Maybe also get a pet.

3. Pressure, competition, and a deep sense of  inadequacy: My students often tell me that they feel stressed and anxious about grades and college admissions; they feel as though they're working as hard as they possibly can, and yet they're still not getting the grades that they want (or that their parents want). Much of this pressure is self-inflicted - it's not necessarily coming from the school or from the parents -- but the fact is that kids are feeling it. And often they feel it intensely.
Possible antidotes: Conversations to help kids keep things in perspective. Mindfulness, yoga, and time in nature  -- all ways to help teens recenter and think about what is really important.

4. Exhaustion: When I walk into my twelfth grade classes, my students inevitably look exhausted. When I cheerily ask them how they're doing, their response is almost always, "We're so tired." They never seem to get enough sleep. Whether this is because of the work load, or because of social media/gaming/ and other distractions, the fact of the matter is that a lack of sleep is clearly correlated with mood disorders. Our kids need sleep. And we need to make sure that they eat and sleep in healthy ways.

When I feel the pressure and pace of life in Singapore wear me down, I often wonder if it's healthy for kids to grow up in environments where the bar is set so high -- too high, perhaps. Maybe if we all do less, and worry less about doing everything so spectacularly well, we will all be happier? Sometimes I watch my students -- their exhaustion, their stress -- and I contemplate moving out of the city to the mountains. I don't think that our bodies and minds are built for the high tech, competitive, fast-paced, urban lifestyle that we've created for ourselves. I think that our biology and psychology are at odds with the world we've created, and the costs of this misalignment can be very high indeed.

Monday, 14 December 2015

The Choices Moms Make - Part 2

I recently wrote this post about the Mom Wars, or the tension that exists between working moms and stay-at-home moms. And this is something that I've been thinking about a lot lately, particularly as I'm investing increasing amounts of time in my own career and finding that I have less time to actively parent my own children.

Here are some scenarios I've encountered in my teaching career:

A few years ago, I had a student who was terribly depressed. Despite being a bright and creative kid, this boy practically failed my class and most of his other classes. He often looked sick to me -- he coughed a lot, he often put his head down in class and zoned out, and he once told me that he suffered from deep anxiety. Despite numerous email exchanges with his mom, I never once met her in person. She and her husband both had jobs where they travelled extensively, and neither of them was ever at home with their son. So, he spent his time with his laptop and his ipad. The housekeeper made sure he was fed, but beyond that, he was left to his own devices (pun intended).

I remember thinking, quite judgmentally (and perhaps unfairly?), that if he were my son, I would have quit work and stayed at home to help him. He needed his mom. Who knows what the situation in the family was like. All I could tell, from my vantage point, was that this kid needed a whole lot more care than he was getting.

And here's another scenario - but a different one.

Some years ago, when I was teaching in Boston at a very elite all-girls school, I had a mom call me up and tell me that her daughter, who was in my advisory group, was trying out for a part in the school play and "she just had to get that part because her self-esteem was very low, and not getting that part would be devastating for her." I explained to the mom that I had nothing to do with the drama department, and that they would pick the girl who deserved the role most.  The mom argued with me vehemently, and finally threw a veiled threat at me: "We've given the school a lot of money. And if you really want to help my daughter, you certainly can." I was shaken. So I told my principal. She shook her head, sighed, and then declared, "That woman really needs a job!"

I agreed. Some moms live through their children in a way that it destructive for the mom, for the kids, and for everyone else involved.

So, coming back to the question I posed earlier: What's a mom to do?

There are obviously no right or easy answers here. But perhaps we women need to introspect deeply about the choices we make so that we can be the best possible mothers and also feel really good about ourselves. At different stages in our children's lives, and in our own lives, we may need to make different choices. Sometimes, mothering may need to take center stage. And at other times, work and outside interests may need to take center stage. Mothering in the 21st century is a balancing act in every sense of the word, and striking the right balance is never easy.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Mom Wars Revisited: The Choices We Make

A conversation in a group of working moms from a recent party:

One mom says, "Oh, Gosh, those housewives. I swear, they have nothing better to do. They love creating more unnecessary work for working moms. They always want to organize more volunteer events at school, more class parties, more social events, more playdates. I can't stand it!"
The other working moms in the group laughed and commiserated about how they have so much to do at work and so little time or patience for stay-at-home moms. I found myself laughing at this mom's outrage, despite my own appreciation for all the volunteer work that so many class moms do. Truth be told, I often find myself scrambling to keep up with the moms who are very involved at school, and my kids keep complaining that I don't volunteer in their classrooms.

And another conversation with a friend of mine, a stay-at-home-mom with two kids.

My friend says, "I love having time with my own kids. This time when they're young is so precious, and it's so fulfilling to be able to be there for them and raise them well. I really don't know how XXX, (a working mom with long hours and a job that includes travel) does it. I would find it so difficult if I had so little time with my kids." I nodded - honestly, I would also find a job with really long hours and lots of travel very challenging. In fact, I often find it challenging to balance parenting with my own job, which has decent hours and no travel.

I've thought a lot about the dilemmas that mothers in busy urban centers contend with. If they stay-at-home with their kids, they risk feeling undervalued, dependent, and marginalized by their peers  and their spouses who work. They may feel as though they lack intellectual stimulation, and they may begin to lose confidence in their own abilities. Their world may shrink, in some sense of the word.

On the other hand, if they work full-time, they spend much less time with their own children, and they risk feeling guilty about the costs to their kids. Particularly if the kids are struggling in some way -- either emotionally, behaviorally, or academically. The fact of the matter is that kids do benefit from time with their parents, and whether we want to admit it or not, children -- infants, toddlers, young kids and even teens -- need large chunks of time with their mothers.

So what's a mom to do?

The fact of the matter is that there are very real costs to whatever decision a woman makes when she has kids. And at present, society exacerbates and intensifies these dilemmas in the following ways:

- It undervalues caregiving roles, which tend to be private and non self-promotional -- so women (and men) who spend their lives caring for others are devalued and exploited.

- It overvalues "public" roles -- so men (and women) who work in the public realm get far more credit, praise, and positive reinforcement from society than those who don't.

- It doesn't expect dads to pull their weight on the home front, so overwhelmingly, working women still have to contend with the second shift, where they come home and immediately move into the mom role. Most of the working women I know, even the ones who are super successful, still end up being the primary parent-in-charge of things such as supervising homework and putting kids to bed. If the mom can't do it, then it's left to the nanny.

- It promotes the myth that the woman can do it all and no one will suffer - not the mom herself, not her kids, not her family. This just isn't true. Women who work full-time and take care of their kids feel chronically overwhelmed and exhausted, particularly when the kids are young. Furthermore, infants and toddlers and even older kids often suffer when their moms aren't around enough. They need "quantity time" together, not just occasional "quality time."

So can a mom do it all without any costs? Not really. Here's Anne-Marie Slaughter's wonderful essay on the myth of moms having it all.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Why Don't Kids in Singapore Read?

As I'm wrapping up with the school term, I'm also gearing up to publicize my new book, Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age. Today, I spoke with Michelle Martin on 938 Live (Singapore) about my book; the conversation will be aired soon on her show WOW: Women of Worth.

One of the things we talked about was the lack of a reading culture in Singapore. Why don't families here prioritize reading? If Singapore really wants to be an intellectual nation, then reading has to be at the center of children's lives.

Why aren't kids reading? Well, for one thing, the exam system doesn't reward reading for pleasure, so some parents see free reading as an indulgence instead of a necessity. The benefits of reading aren't immediately apparent, and they aren't easily quantifiable and measurable. But that doesn't mean they don't exist.

But, on the bright side, I've met a lot of wonderful people in Singapore who are working hard to change the way families think about reading. Michelle has a talk show called "Talking Books with Michelle," and the National Book Council runs a number of reading-related events including the annual Asian Festival of Children's Content (AFCC), which celebrates Asian children's literature. And the libraries on the island are fantastic.

So I'm optimistic. There's so much great children's literature out there, and there are a whole host of promising new Asian writers, so hopefully, families will begin to see the value of reading. I honestly can't imagine my life and my home without books. They have enriched my life so much, and they are so central to everything I do. As an educator, inspiring kids to love reading is a central part of my job. And creating a reading culture in my home is one of the most pleasurable aspects of parenting. Anna Quindlen captured my feelings beautifully when she said, "Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey. They are home."

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Children's Books 2015 and why we still need fiction

Wanted to share the New York Times Notable Children's Books for 2015. Some good holiday reading!

Also, I recently read this post on EdWeek about how American schools are teaching more non-fiction and less fiction. While I love non-fiction, and I'm all for kids reading a wide range of genres and building their knowledge base, I don't like the idea of sacrificing fiction.

Why do our kids still need fiction?
Because, most importantly, it helps us understand what it means to be human.

Here's what I say in Beyond the Tiger Mom:

Books, stories, and poetry are part of our shared humanity; they help us understand and make sense of the human experience. Across time and place, in a wide range of languages, humans have been telling stories, crafting poems, singing songs, and expressing their deepest feelings and fears through the spoken and written word. While our technologies and lifestyles may have changed unrecognizably over the last millennia, the words of Kabir and Kalidas, Li Bao and Cao Xueqin, Milton and Shakespeare still resonate today – a broken heart then is not unlike a broken heart now; the ache and longing of love one thousand years ago is much the same as the ache and longing of love today.

I have so many memories of intense and moving reading experiences as a child and a teenager. I remember clearly my induction into the world of readers. One hot summer in Chennai, when I was almost seven years old, the sun filtered through the leaves of the mango tree outside our house and glinted off the pages of my book. I sat with my back against the trunk of the tree, reading each page with studied concentration. I held my breath, my heart pounding in my chest, as I wondered whether or not Joe, Beth and Frannie would ever escape from the clutches of Dame Snap. The children had climbed up the ladder to one of the magical lands at the top of the Faraway tree, and they had, unfortunately, gotten trapped in a terrible land.  Would they find their way out? Every day that summer, I retreated to the shade of the mango tree and read. Every night, I fell asleep dreaming about magical lands and fantastical adventures. By the end of my summer vacation, I had finished reading The Folk of the Faraway Tree, my first chapter book, and I had become a reader.

Now, as a parent and teacher, I feel a sense of deja-vu as I watch my own children and students enter the world of books and stories. When my eight year old son laughs out loud as he reads about the terrible fate of Augustus Gloop, that “big fat nincompoop” in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I am reminded of the humor and laughter of childhood reading. When my five year old daughter begs me to read her one more chapter from Charlotte’s Web, I am reminded of the way books draw us into their worlds, allowing us to imagine all kinds of possibilities. And when one of my ninth graders clutches The Kite Runner tightly in his hands and tells me that he has never loved a book so much, I am reminded again of the power of books and words to move us, literally, to tears.

As a parent, there are plenty of reasons to surround your child with books and provide your child with the space and time to read, read, read. When you see your son or daughter curled up in bed with a book, don’t dismiss it as a waste of time. That time is precious. Your child is learning more than you know.