Don’t Deck the Halls All the Time

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This is an exhausting time of year for students, parents and teachers, especially those in middle school and high school. It is as though everything is converging at once. Not only are there midterm exams, but anyone taking a course in music or dance is no doubt involved in presenting a concert or performance. Then there are tons of projects coming due as well. Seniors in high school also have to meet deadlines for applications to universities. Many teachers develop ideas for special days or plays that require students to come to school in costumes.

While all of this sounds good on paper, when it is all put together in one moment in time you have students losing sleep and parents stressing out trying to help them across the holiday finish line. Without cross communication nobody appears to notice just how overwhelming it all is for everyone. Even worse is when well-intentioned teachers assign more reading and projects for the students to complete over the Christmas break, thus assuring that it won’t be much of a vacation for the family. 

The usual response that I hear when I bring up such things is that kids need to be prepared for college and real life which will be even busier. While I agree that the ultimate outcome from education should make certain that youngsters have learned the skills of balancing sometimes unrelenting workloads with leisure, I would note that even college students are allowed to totally rest during the winter break. Once they have turned in their papers, projects and exams they are done until the next semester begins, usually three or four weeks later. So it is with employees as well. Vacation time is usually just that, a time to rest and relax completely. Even teachers are mostly able to design their duties in such a way that they are able to set aside all thoughts of grading and planning until they return from the holidays. It is often not so for middle and high school students. By default, this situation crimps the plans of parents as well.

Never once during my decades of teaching did I send my students home for the holidays with an assignment. I already knew that they were most likely to wait until the eleventh hour to haphazardly do such work, so there was little point in ruining their fun and relaxation. I understood that families travel, plan special events, have visitors, and just like to spend time together over the winter break. I always believed that it was perhaps even more important to the development of young people to spend quality time with family and friends than completing math problems. 

I sense that everyone is somewhat exhausted at this time of year. It’s difficult to focus on the meaning of the season when people have to race from one practice to another, attend multiple events and also be up to speed on homework, studying for tests and completing special projects. Such things may look good on the outside but it seems to me that we have less and less quiet time with our families or special friends.We are rushing about much too often. Many of the Christmas meltdowns and disagreements come from the frustrations of being incredibly tired. 

We seem to want to create perfection at Christmas time. We busy ourselves with so many tasks that everyone feels a bit anxious and stressed. Then we wonder why our children are crying and/or pitching fits. We become our own caricatures of the families in Christmas Vacation or Elf. We lose sight of why we are even celebrating. 

I think we would do well to dial things back. We don’t have to fill every minute of every day with either fun or work for our children. They often learn some of the very best lessons when left to their own imaginations. It’s nice to allow them moments to decide on their own what they want to do, even if that means catching up on their sleep or walking aimlessly during a day now and again. Everything does not need to be a party or a reason for costumes or decorations. 

I teach a family of children who speaking glowingly of a gigantic bingo game hosted by their grandparents that happens every Christmas. They spend the holiday just laughing and playing with dozens of cousins. There is nothing fancy about it, but it creates precious memories simply because it is dedicated to just loving each other without worries about work or things that must be done. I wonder as a teacher how often we unwittingly interfere with the joy of such things by burdening our students with unnecessary work. 

Childhood goes by quickly. If we blink our kids are all grown up and working everyday, sometimes faraway. We need to insist that when it is holiday time we provide them with the freedom to be away from all the demands that we place on then during the rest of the year. Let them have fun, most especially when they are teens. Soon enough they will be bearing the responsibilities of being and adult. We don’t need to deck the halls all of the time.

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