Stress is the new cool at 12

All carers of children, including their teachers, have an obligation to recognise their human dimension, says Shereen Pandit

HE foot protruded from underneath the locked toilet door at the gym. I called out, tapped the foot, then peeked under the door. A schoolgirl lay face down on the other side. I ran for help. Yelling instructions to the class, a gym teacher came and scrambled over the toilet door. I called an ambulance. She half-carried the girl out. The girl and other teacher went off in the ambulance. The lesson resumed. All in a day's work.

I asked what had happened and was told the girl had fainted from stress. Stress, at age 12! The teacher shrugged. Fainting from stress is pretty common among today's schoolgirls.

Are parents living such souped-up lives that our children are stressed, too? Are schools pushing kids to physical breakdown? Are peers putting too much pressure on them to conform? Do kids expect too much of themselves? Is fainting just another "in" thing. Does noticing it cause more stress?

I consider my daughter's life. Up at 6.50am, bike to school, lessons for seven hours, ride home, relax for an hour, do homework, practise violin, read, eat, feed cat, bath, bed at 9:30pm. Manic, but not that different from my life circa 1970.

True, my daughter has extramurals I never had, but we've cut many out. Much as she would like to do everything everyone else is doing, the sheer physical stress of biking all over the city was getting to my old legs. None the less, my daughter still has music and karate, both of which involve regular tuition, practice and grading. She loves them. It seems she thrives on stress. Perhaps I'm stressing her by cutting down on her activities?

No, if anything would cause my daughter to faint, it would be school-related. After all, school is what she spends most waking hours on. Homework half-hour has grown from two hours at age 11 to three or even four at age 12. Plus studying for tests. Doing well is a trap. Teachers have expectations. Last year Mr Maths told her off for getting two sums wrong in a whole year. This year's Mr Maths believes that, while he teaches the rest of the class, she should be well able to teach herself. Ms English and Ms Science don't think she's stretched enough by the work everyone else gets. Should I warn them about stress?

The Government pushes teachers. Teachers push kids. Every child has to bat their school up the league tables. It's push, push, push. If they break, well that's too bad.

At 12 or 13 there's the added pressure of "growing up". Or rather, not growing up and filling out at the same rate as everyone else. Bum's too big or not big enough. Breasts are just buttons or mountains necessitating hunchbacked walking. Pimples cause untold mental agony. Hair's not straight enough or too straight. Everyone else has a cellphone. Everyone else is going to see Gareth Gates.

Not that different from my experience in South Africa, plus we laboured in the heat of "education is the only way out of the ghetto" and exams three times a year, with the threat of being kept back if we failed. We didn't faint.

Is it the parents' fault? With two part-time jobs, a PhD, union work, does my husband have less time for her than before? Is my worry about money and guilt about stopping work showing? I panic. I'm a possible stress factor in my daughter's life. I'll stop hassling her to tidy her room, feed her cat and help with the dishes.

A non-parent friend plumps for the overlooked option. Kids are too aware of the idea of stress. Everyone else is fainting. It's cool to be stressed. Should I pile on pressure?

My daughter comes home looking tired, heads for her room, emerges briefly to eat and to feed the cat. Five subjects today. Five lots of homework. Would yoga classes just add to the pressure?

Shereen Pandit is a short-story writer and poet.

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