Stress-free Steps For Your Child’s Education

Our grandchildren, Deanna and Ryan, love to do puzzles. Their first puzzle had six pieces with knobs on them. We introduce new puzzles slowly so the children will have a series of small stress-free steps from the familiar to the unfamiliar with a quick and satisfying "Ah-ha!" Success with no stress! What a novel idea!

Yes, "success with no stress" is a novel idea. More commonly in our culture we notice this attitude:

"My kids need a good challenge because life is challenging; they need to get used to that."

"No pain, no gain."

"Life should be hard so the children have to really work at it and push through, whatever it takes."

"I want my kids' mental capacity to be stretched to the limit, so they'll experience struggle and then the relief when they get it."

We challenge the practice of adults imposing challenges on children, because imposed challenges create stress.

Stress is actually promoted as a necessary price that must be paid for progress. This concept continues in spite of the common agreement that stress is negative. There is an abundance of evidence that stress causes debilitating physical, mental, and emotional problems for children such as illnesses, pent-up anger, emotional disturbances, ADD/ADHD, poor vision, misbehavior and depression.

Fifty years ago the incidence of these problems was markedly lower than today. Children have not basically changed over this time, but the incidence of disorders like ADD/ADHD has skyrocketed. What has changed? It is the cultural environment they experience that has changed.

Even though parents usually intend to create a positive environment for a child, the influence of the common culture invades the home causing the parents to begin imposing unreasonably high expectations for academic knowledge, test scores, sports performances, musical achievement and daily living competency. We can become alert to the culture's influence by asking, "Do the children REALLY need this?"

Sometimes parents impose challenges as an attempt to draw their child away from television, video games and the Internet. But these media-based enticements already create stress in a child because they run counter to the strong need for physical movement and play. Imposing challenges just adds more stress and that can lead to serious harm.

The well-known Sudbury Valley School in Sudbury, Massachusetts has been in existence over thirty years. The school demands courtesy and respect of others as a governing principle, but another principle is that the children are not challenged and forced to learn that in which they have no interest and are not ready. In the resulting stress-free environment no student has ever been labeled with ADD or related learning disorders, and, as a group, the graduates are exceptionally successful in adult life.

Success with no stress. This is our principle for everything our grandchildren do at our house. Forward movements in skill, accumulation of knowledge or creative expression need to be a series of steps that do not generate stress. Why? Because the presence of stress causes the release of cortisol into the brain, which harms the growing brain and inhibits optimum learning. Dr. Carla Hannaford tells us that five minutes of stress generates so much cortisol in the blood stream that it takes six hours of stress-free time for it to wear off.

What, then, is the solution? How do we create stress-free time for a child? Isn't stress an unavoidable part of education? The answers lie in adopting new views of education and childhood.

Education Comes From Within

The root meaning of education is "to lead out," not "to train and impose." What do we "lead out" from a child, and can that be done without stress? When we lead out the child's innate curiosity, creativity, and playfulness, it does not cause stress. In fact, with stress-free play and movement the brain is nourished with dopamine that promotes optimal learning and retention. Positive change in education would develop environments for optimal learning, stress-free experience, joyful attitudes, and the quick "Ah-ha!" It is a fundamental principle that if given a chance, children's natural development will lead them in productive ways.

The current cultural concept of proper education with its emphasis on academics, testing, and constant directing of the children creates stressed-out unhappy, walking encyclopedias. Too many parents and teachers measure their personal self-worth by the academic, musical or athletic accomplishments of their children. Instead, a real measure of value would lie in the level of freedom from stress and anxiety that the children have.

Stress-free children are amazing learners, responsibly self-directed, and immensely creative if they are protected from the intense, negative influences of the culture. We all know these influences as television, computer games, drugs, sex, lack of integrity, neglect of children…the list is long. When we take a good look at most children's childhood, we see there the roots of the debilitating stress and anxiety that is now prevalent among children. This is one of the tragedies of our time.

The ideal childhood is like a second womb — a place of safety, loving nourishment, and healthy growth. In this view children would transfer from the mother's womb to a broader womb of family and community, a place just as safe and protected as the pregnancy womb. The second womb, carefully attended during childhood, is an environment that protects the children from influences that would impose upon them stress and anxiety, and instead, is an environment that supports their innate curiosity, creativity, and playfulness. The task for the adults, then, is not to challenge the child, but to protect the child from being diverted and controlled by the dizzying carnival of peer competition, captivating media entertainment and unnecessary intellectual pressures. When the second womb is a place of support tended by caring adults, a child naturally learns and effectively prepares for a fulfilling and joyful adult life.

The increasing capability of science is making it possible to study brain, mental and physical development much more accurately than ever before. We now know, scientifically, that when anything is learned with accompanying stress, the stress is learned along with the lesson and the stress is recalled when the lesson is applied. When we explained this to a friend, she gasped and said, "Ah, ha, that's why I get a knot in my stomach every time I need to recall the seven times table. I had an awful experience with that teacher."

Bill's high school track coach shared recently that he always studied every boy and learned as much as possible about him. His goal was to help that boy do just a little better than what he could already do well or had the obvious potential of doing well. This is an enlightened principle and honors the individuality and personhood of each child. If parents nurtured each one of their children in this way, we would have quite a different adult population than we find today. Interestingly, the coach quit education and sought an alternative career when it became impossible within the school system to honor the individual child.

Reducing Classroom Stress

Stress-free Steps For Your Child’s EducationRecent scientific studies have shown that:

  • Five years of age is much too early for children, boys especially, to be challenged with academics.
  • The mechanisms of the eyes and of the vision centers in the brain are not developed enough to support reading without injury to the eyes and overall stress to the child until about age eight. In Denmark, reading is not introduced until age eight and there are virtually no learning disabilities and 100% literacy in two languages.
  • Cursive writing should be introduced to children before printing. Being forced to learn printing first is stressful and can cause anxiety, muscle pain, and backache that can be long-lasting.

Beyond these broadly applicable guidelines, each child has a unique timeline of natural readiness for progress. When this timeline of readiness is honored and supported, the child progresses easily and without stress.

When a high school girl wrote about the violence in schools, she emphasized that "It is not surprising that some kids snap. The pressures on us are terrible." And furthermore, the pressures are largely unproductive, often destructive. The challenges on children of all ages that much of the common culture judges acceptable for children to bear, are obviously intolerable, given the social evidence alone. The homicides and suicides among young people are only a small portion of the terrible price being paid in our country for the failure to honor the natural physical, mental, and emotional development needs of our children. Our culture is neglecting the precious person of the child and, instead, giving the academic arena prime time.

Reducing Stress at Home

When adults express their pleasure about having certain challenges in their lives, the challenges are self-chosen and, if wisely done, are not stressful. Most challenges that adults think are "good for kids" are loaded with stress for them. Today's children will likely live to at least eighty years. What is the hurry? The more slowly maturation takes place in girls and boys, the stronger their character and qualities will be as adults.

Intellectual academic challenges are not the only challenges that are inappropriately imposed on our children. Many children are forced to take care of themselves when they themselves still need rocking and cuddling. Children long to be honored and respected for who they inherently are — their true self. Yet in most cases, parental attention is limited to directing and correcting their children's behavior. Monitoring your conversations and the quality of your attention to your children for a day or a week may surprise you. What categories are given prime time? Are those categories really important in order to create and sustain a joyful life being lived in fifty years?

Many parents set their goal horizons for children based on the next day or the next school year, rather than looking towards a magnificent life experience of fifty-plus years and all the years in between. Squeezing big expectations into such a short time is like over-fertilizing a plant: it grows rapidly, but weakly. Unfortunately, this attitude creates debilitating pressure and anxiety. The culprit is usually fear. Often there is fear among parents that their children won't know enough academically to be competitive in the world, or even just in their classroom. Without thinking, an environment of anxiety and lifeless activity is created that actually reduces the possibilities of building a magnificent life for a child's future. This fear drives the parents to push, prod, over-schedule and overload the kids. Doing this over and over to children during their childhood almost guarantees that their adult years will be stressfully driven in the environment of anxious survival rather than providing the gift of joyful daily living which calls forth creativity, ingenuity, imagination, cooperation, personal fulfillment and loving relationships.

Choosing Joy Over Stress

stress-free-steps-small-2Joy is a magnificent gift for a family. When all family members can let the joy that they naturally are flow forth, everyone benefits and all learning, chores, interactions, and routines are quickly and cooperatively accomplished. Functioning as a family without stress is truly one of the most important ways to have a joy-full family life. Anything that might be done with stress can be done, instead, with fun, fulfillment, and satisfaction when the time is right and the way of going about it is appropriate to natural development and the children's interests. If it can't be done that way, perhaps it just should not be done at all at that time.

Choosing a household goal and family theme of no stress is to choose the one thing that can facilitate freedom and joy of all sorts for the life of the family. This pattern sets in place a pattern for all of life that your children can carry into their adult lives.

There are many ways to eliminate stress. Every family should make their own list. Here are some ideas:

Give children the opportunity to "do nothing." They will benefit greatly from the relaxation, and from having the space in their lives to be creative and contemplative. When life starts rolling for children as they become adults, in employment, relationships, family and adulthood in general, they may never again in their lifetime have a chance to simply "be." This is a most valuable "bank account" for children to be able to build. If it doesn't happen in childhood, the opportunity to just "be" may never again be possible once children reach the adult arena. What is the hurry? Why rush through life?

Being bored is better than being pushed into frustration, struggle, or anxiety. When Deanna or Ryan voice, "I'm bored," we always counter with, "That's wonderful. Now you can have fun finding something interesting to do." And they always do find something creative, interesting and fun. At the same time they are taking a giant step toward fulfilling their potential and preserving their creative gifts.

Buy products that you determine will give your children a quick "Ah-Ha!" and opportunity to take short steps forward without frustration. Watch the age labeling on products, they are often inappropriate for your children. If something will be easy and enjoyable, that can be a plus. Quick success over and over with gentle progress, taking your lead from the child, is far better than strides that are too long and become discouraging and frustrating. Discouragement and frustration lead to a feeling of failure. It doesn't take too many experiences of failure to turn off a child's self-confidence and sense of inherent value.

Discourage competition and comparison with other children. Although it is nourishing for children to be with others of various ages, younger and older, if that association includes comparison or competition, it becomes stressful.

An acquaintance told us recently that her daughter, Jennifer, is going to junior college because she got bored with regular school. She's taking English, Geography, History of Civilizations and Music Appreciation. She is on campus all day, four days a week and has three to four hours of homework on school days. Except for the excessive amount of time spent on homework, that routine could be okay — but Jennifer is only fourteen. This example is analogous to many situations in children's daily lives that parents think are "just swell" for their children. But there can be hidden pressures, sophisticated ideas, and subtleties that influence the children's consciousness without any awareness that they are being so influenced.

Jennifer may do fine intellectually, but that is not the only measure that should be used for appropriateness. Many emotional experiences in the junior college environment are way beyond the scope of what most children of fourteen can gracefully handle. The stress and strain from these experiences (often not even recognized) silently slip into dark corners of the emotional core, just waiting to explode at another time without awareness of the cause. We encourage parents to support pursuits that are truly age appropriate so that their children arrive at adulthood with proper emotional maturity, strength, and energy to handle the full breadth of the experience graciously and joyfully.

The tender care and nourishment of the emotional core of children is an essential element of a life without stress. Often the mental capacity of children matures before their interests and emotional readiness. That doesn't mean, however, that pushing into and through academics, sophisticated music experiences or grueling athletics is appropriate or positive, because it often happens at the expense of balanced emotional security and stability. Academic achievement is fragile and of little value compared to fulfilling a joyful life and building a mature and secure emotional core. Of all assets with which to walk into adulthood, a strong, solid and intact emotional core is the most important, because it then positively supports the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of life. New things can be quickly learned, relationships will be healthy, wisdom can be accessed, and joy is part of every day. There is no better legacy a parent can give a child.

How can the emotional core be properly protected and nourished? No stress! This does not mean giving license to anarchy. It means family living by principle. We challenge the common practice of challenging children beyond what is natural, comfortable and enjoyable for them. Challenges typically cause stress. When the true self of children is honored, the children are not pushed forward too far, too soon into unfamiliar territory. If children are living in an ideal childhood, they will, without outside direction, take the next steps of learning at the right time and in the right way. Accept your challenge to protect your children for an adult lifetime of joyful fulfillment by creating for them a stress-free childhood.

Win and Bill Sweet share a passion for the realization of joyful family living. Their practical and proven techniques for bringing success and joy to families are the basis for their workshops, seminars and mentoring program. They write articles for several publications and are authors of the award-winning book, Living Joyfully with Children, published by Acropolis Books. Win and Bill live in the San Francisco Bay Area and may be contacted at (408) 262-7077 and through their website at