Are we setting impossible standards for our children? Does this affect their mental and physical well-being?

A bold headline “HC seeks steps from varsities to prevent student suicides” in The Hindu, grabbed my attention. Suicide by students, unable to meet the exacting standards set for them, has reached such alarming proportions that the law has now stepped in to ensure that educational institutions share the responsibility of their students’ mental health-related concerns. All this brings into focus the burning issue of “failure” and why it compels students to resort to such an extreme step.

Let’s think about the causes. Though acknowledged as being complex and subjective, not enough is being done to understand the underlying reason for the all-consuming desperation. Is it because of an inherent inability (some people have special difficulties)? Is it the environment at home and the attitude of key stakeholders in their personal lives? Or simply, do they just fail because the system fails them — is unable to bring out the best in them but is still quick to hand out a verdict? What are some of the biggest de-motivating factors at play?

Afraid of failure

Well, standing at the baseline, it would seem that children mostly fail because they are afraid, bored and confused.

They are afraid of failing because of the disappointment their anxious parents might feel. We adults destroy most of the intellectual and creative abilities of children by making them afraid — of not doing what other people want, of not pleasing, of making mistakes, of being wrong. We make them afraid to explore, afraid to experiment, afraid to try the difficult and the unknown. May be we do not create children’s fears but when they come to us with fears, instead of trying to lessen them, we build them up. We use these fears to manipulate them and get them to do what we want. We like children who are docile, a little afraid of us!

Parents have always been concerned with the education of their child, but in today’s world of competition, shallow relationships, narrow viewpoints and nuclear families; this natural concern becomes a high level of anxiety if the child does not perform to their expectation.

They get bored because structures enforced in schools standardise and stereotype activities to make them more manageable across the massive numbers that need to be catered to. This makes everything into a dull, personality-less format that fails to make any demands on the mental faculties of the individual, limiting creativity and the drive to stand out.

Confused

Children are confused because they do not relate to what is being taught in school. Overburdened teachers are not in a position to personalise tasks or feedback. Things tend to be as simplistic as black and white, right or wrong and if the processes put in place for the masses don’t really work for them, they are at risk of getting left behind because there is nobody to show them another way in.

The question teachers and parents should ask themselves is why does a child underperform academically? The answer is simple. The skills and attitudes that form the very foundation on which IQ is constructed are never taught in school. We are set up to teach lessons but do not make the same investment in building up skill sets, the very tools of learning and thinking, required for children to take in all the learning. This means that the system is geared to teaching children what to learn but not how to — rather like putting the cart before the horse.

Flaws in the system

Besides, we also need to take cognisance of the fact that our general educational framework has a system of automatic promotion to the next class irrespective of the marks obtained. This “no retention” policy takes children to the next class where the standard desirable may be above his ability level, thus widening the discrepancy between actual performance and expected performance for that class. Further, 35 per cent marks in each subject are generally required to pass an examination, which the child manages to get with extra coaching, pressure from the parent and may be due to lenient correction of papers. What goes unnoticed is the trauma the child under goes in the process.

Another limitation of our education system is that howsoever good one may be with verbal answers; the evaluation of a child is based solely on written examinations. With school and college education having become so competitive, children with learning difficulties that manifest most in written tasks get nowhere; their talents hidden or otherwise are never showcased.

Repeated failure in academics can cause children to become anxious and depressed. Parents have a tremendous role to play in preventing the onset of anxiety and depression by recognising the subtle signs. One of the earliest warning signals may be a loss of self-esteem often expressed in feelings of inferiority or a tendency to give up on one self too easily and too soon. We adults are predisposed towards giving or withholding approval as a way of controlling, manipulating or making children do what we want. Children who become accustomed to this sort of adult approval over time are conditioned to extreme thoughts — you either win or you don’t. We adults perhaps facilitate these ‘deliberate’ failures.

Obviously, a lot is at stake. Therefore, a high priority for every family, every school and society has to be the intent to secure the most healthy and positive future for the children they are responsible for. A good place to start is by trying to foster a sense of self esteem in them, one they can build on themselves without a constant need for external validation which may not always come to them in the shape and form that will actually add value.

By respecting a child’s inherent strengths and teaching by example, one can infuse a very powerful sense of optimism in them for their own future. Over time this can teach our younger generation that ‘failure’ is not always a sign to try harder but rather an indication that we need to start approaching the situation from a slightly different perspective. Beginning early, we need to impress upon them that people don’t always succeed. Life holds many more defeats than victories for all of us and that the only obligation we have is to keep trying and do the best we can every day.

The writer is a Remedial Educator

rajfarida@gmail.com