Aug 25, 2010 Editorial
The CSEC results, as had the CAPE and SSEE earlier, accomplished its annual raising-of-the-national-consciousness about the value of education. Everyone agrees that education is good: good for the children and good for the nation. Reading between the lines of the remarkable success of the high-flyers (Sixteen subjects?!), however, one can only wonder about the anxiety of the unheralded thousands that did not fare as well.
And we are not thinking only of the traditionally deprived children from the boondocks. Twenty-nine percent of the candidates from Queen’s College, if the figures are to be believed (did the Ministry of Education disaggregate the dozens of fourth formers that are entered for only Mathematics?) could not secure passes in five subjects. These are the children that were the very cream at the SSEE five years earlier. What had happened in the interval? So much had been expected from them: imagine the pressure. Was it a case of burnout, or too much stress?
Recently, there has been commendable publicity on the deleterious effects of child abuse in Guyana. It has long been known by psychologists that such children face heightened risks for a host of negative psychological consequences. The social, emotional, behavioural, and cognitive damage mounted up over the short and long terms. Children who are abused are more likely to have higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse, anxiety, depression, stress disorder, eating and sleep disorders, hyperactivity, impairments in thinking, suicidal behaviour and self-harm, poor relationships with others, and low self-esteem. Quite pertinently for the subject under scrutiny, they are more likely to do poorly in school, be kept behind in grade level, and go less far in their education.
But we believe that not enough attention is being given to the just as insidious impact of harsh parenting, such as the extreme pressures that are placed on children to jump though the hoops of the education system. Academic achievement, we have often pointed out in this space, is not the only guide to the abilities of children. Harsh parenting, including the stress placed by even well-meaning parents every year on their children for that achievement, can be devastating on their long-term health. Maybe it is time we rethink our priorities?
Early stress in the home is significantly associated with later physical disease and early death. The diseases in question run across a wide range, from cancer to heart, liver and lung disorders to reproductive health problems to higher rates of alcohol abuse and smoking. These stresses can emanate from pressure for high performance at school, sustained conflict in the home, a lack of emotional warmth in family relations, inadequate and inept parenting practices (e.g., heavy use of reprimands – not to mention the popular “don’t-spare-the-rod” orthodoxy), shouting, and general chaos and disruption. For a harsh stressful environment, there is a dose-response relation: as stress rises higher, so do deleterious neuro-endocrine changes in the child’s body that relate to susceptibility to disease. The real danger comes from chronic stress—the body’s adaptive reaction to stress that goes off and on as part of ordinary life does not seem to have undesirable consequences. Because not everyone responds the same way to chronic stress, we can say only that harsh environments increase risk, not that they invariably produce bad outcomes.
The remedy does not have to be earthshaking: we can start by taking a kinder tone with our kids, no matter how strict we may be with them. A recent study has shown that reducing harsh parenting—draconian discipline, sharp criticism etc. – and increasing warmth, affection, and praise for good behaviour contributed to reduction in biological indices of stress responses, like the levels of cortisone, a stress hormone. Again, this doesn’t mean that we are advocating that parents become permissive or weak.
The opposite, in fact: parental yelling and berating children because of frustration is a form of giving in to weakness. It takes a lot more strength to be gentle with them even while exercising your authority and coping with your own undeniably stress-inducing problems. Including accepting not every child is going to be Einstein.
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