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Students Know What They Need

Students Know What They Need
Dr. Bob Bowman

Meeting prospective Upper School students is a fascinating part of my job. It is clear that many of our visitors have never spoken to their principal before (or at least not casually), so they often arrive with a bit of trepidation. After they see that I do not bite, they usually calm down a little. After we chat about academics and extracurricular activities, and their aspirations for high school, I ask one final question: "It is Saturday – you have absolutely no obligations or responsibilities, and you can do anything you like (within reason) – what would you do?"  The answers to this question have revealed three things to me – two are expected, and one is actually surprising.

Sleep.  More than 75% of the prospective students say they would sleep late on their self-curated Saturday. We hear this all the time – students need more sleep.  Here are a few headlines (of dozens) with links if you Google “students not getting enough sleep:”  "CDC: Most Middle and High School Students Don't Get Enough Sleep;" "70% of High Schoolers Aren’t Getting Enough Sleep;" "Teens and Sleep: The Cost of Sleep Deprivation;" and "The less college students sleep, the worse their grades, study finds."  I encourage you to read these articles if you have the time.  If you want some suggestions on how to help your teenager get more sleep, here is an article from the Child Mind Institute that is a great place to start:  "How to Help Teenagers Get More Sleep."  This is not easy to accomplish given all the distractions of social media and the amount of homework that frequently occurs, but it is possibly one of the greatest gifts you can give your children.  Just as a reference, teenagers need at least nine hours of sleep each night. 

Another frequent and expected activity I get from students for their ideal Saturday is wanting to "just hang out with my friends" – in person, not online.  Our children inherently know that they need to be present with their friends, not just through their phones and computers. While we all learned the power of Zoom during the pandemic, we also quickly understood it is just not the same as talking to folks face-to-face. It does not matter where this happens – in the park, at the mall, at someone's home; they just yearn to be together. I have already inundated you with enough references, but there is also a plethora of articles and studies that link the lack of socialization among teenagers with anxiety, depression, and poor academic performance. Finding time for your children to have unstructured, spontaneous (if possible) time with their friends (or prospective friends) is essential for their social and emotional health. Personally, I think it is as important a use of their time as many of their scheduled activities. Your mileage may vary.

My follow up to hearing about these prospective students "best day ever" is, "So when do you think you'll get a chance to do this?" And the surprising answers to this query are almost universally "never" or "maybe this summer." And please keep in mind that the days these students describe are not far-fetched fantasies; they are usually an amalgamation of activities that are all quite possible in the course of a day. To me this is heartbreaking. Somehow, in our earnest effort as parents to provide myriad opportunities in athletics, arts, and academics, we may have missed out on the joy and value of allowing our children to choose how to spend their free time. Letting them choose not only gives them agency, but it also allows them to use their imaginations and broaden their own horizons.  As the father of a former teenager, I am absolutely guilty of overplanning my son's free time. Sadly, I cannot change the past.  

As my brief meeting with prospective students comes to an end, I encourage them to try to live the Saturday they just shared. They smile and say sure and then quickly leave my office, likely hoping not to spend more time there if they do decide to join our Upper School community. My enduring hope is maybe, just maybe, they will find a way to live the day they shared with me – many, many times.