As part of our Time Out series, JEMS founder Christine Ma-Lau 劉馬露明 reminds us of the importance of giving kids some free time.
When we think of ‘time out’ for kids, we think of it as a punishment. They’ve done something wrong, so we send them out of the room to have some ‘time out’ to think and calm down before saying sorry and rectifying their mistake. But in our busy city, I’d like to redefine ‘time out’ as necessary time for kids to rest and explore.
The mental health problems school-age children face in Hong Kong
Recent mental health reports on school-age children in Hong Kong contain some frightening statistics. A survey of more than 100 students reported that 35% suffered from back-to-school anxiety, 25% didn’t know how to handle stress and an astounding 24% shared that they had contemplated suicide. Another study on youth mortality found that in the 3 reports published since 2008 about the topic, 85 youth had committed suicide, which is more than the 83 deaths caused by accidents. When will we wake up to this problem and do something about it?
Human beings are just like rubber bands: meant to stretch but can snap
Rubber bands are an amazing invention. Every rubber band is a different length, size and different level of ‘stretchiness’. The purpose of a rubber band is to be stretched, however, if they’re stretched too much or for too long, they will snap.
Humans are the same. We’re meant to stretch and grow physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually from fragile babies to youths and adults. Similar to rubber bands, we each have a different threshold of ‘stretchiness’ and will snap at a different level of pressure. It’s important that we stretch enough to grow but not so much that we snap.
Every child is unique and copes differently
The question then is – how much pressure makes a ‘rubber band’ snap? Everyone is different so there’s no straightforward answer. I’ve had parents ask me how any activities is a ‘suitable number’ for them to enroll their children in. Every child is different. Some children have the capacity to learn 10 different things and thrive. For others, they would be too stretched by that and can only enjoy and succeed doing 2 activities.
The importance of down time for school-age children: the new ‘time out’
As adults, we are always taught to practice ‘work-life balance’: avoid taking work home and find hobbies to help us relax. I don’t know about you, but after a long day at work, a bit of mindless TV or dinner with friends is exactly what I need to decompress. I try not to bring work home in order to maintain a work-life balance. For the most part, people would commend my choice of lifestyle.
Compare that to the life of a student. They go to school all day (akin to a day of work) and after hours of cognitive stimulation, leave school to continue learning at tutorials. After that, they head home to do homework, practice their instruments and revise for upcoming tests. Kids as young as pre-school are over-scheduled and over-committed. There’s no time out, no time to relax. This kind of schedule would snap even a strong rubber band.
This problem is systemic and runs deep. My suggestion for families is to make sure kids have ‘time outs’. This is time in the day for kids to have some down time. Time to let their imaginations wander, time to run, time to just sit, time for them to determine what they need to do. I’m not suggesting that let our kids go wild without being responsible for their commitments but I am suggesting that we re-evaluate what our kids can and should handle and how much time out they should enjoy. Maybe your child just needs 15 minutes to play after school before being recharged enough to do homework; but maybe your child needs an hour to creatively draw and express their emotions before being able to concentrate on other tasks. This requires knowing your child’s needs. Whatever the length of time is, all kids need time out – don’t we all?