Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Tossing the Coin: School vs. Fun?

Last week I happened upon an article about excessive demands and burnout. Although primarily focused on the workplace, I wondered if this assessment might be extended to other venues such as, say, school. This would definitely explain the local fad of taking children out of school to give them a "day off." Just to be clear, I don't mean for doctor's appointments or because they're not feeling well or for those special occasions when a relative is visiting from abroad but rather, to give junior a day to lay on the couch, eat bonbons, watch television and basically, recuperate.
I'd like a show of hands. How many parents think that their children are deserving of a "day off" every now and then? If I were to pose this question to my friends back in the U.S. of A. it would surely garner a kind of twisted, cynical "Are you kidding me?"-look leaving no room for interpretation. Just try to find a comic satirizing parents actually running away from school with their children instead of shoving them back inside! Yet here in my adopted neighborhood there are a fair number of parents that think otherwise!                           
Having rarely missed a day of school, let alone been allowed to stay home to "hang," I've tried to familiarize myself with the fundamental reasoning behind what I consider to be a positively inane practice. Here's what I've come up with: Kids are being given a "day off," commonly known as a "fun day" in the local jargon, because they've "earned it." Apparently, certain parents feel that the arduous and exhausting experience of attending school every day demands more of a recovery than the natural one that comes at the end of every week (otherwise known as the weekend) and those that come in the form of vacation days.
I did a quick calculation: Here in Israel kids have approximately 180 days off for roaming and such. Despite this inordinate margin for freedom (50 percent of the year??) a fair number of local parents regularly whisk their little darlings away from school. I suppose, in light of all the burnout noted in the press, there simply isn't enough time for "fun." Whether aged eighteen or six (even kindergartners tire of building block towers and digging plastic figures out of the sand box) children need to be "relieved" from a tiresome day at school (and all of those demands that go along with it) and offered alternative, more enjoyable, and relaxing activities such as surfing, bowling, go-carting, fishing, shopping and/or lunch with mommy.
My poor, deprived, and obviously quite envious children have never been given a "day off" let alone anything as frivolous as a "fun day" and with only a few more years of secondary education remaining in this household I can guarantee that there is absolutely no chance they'll get one. Maybe I'm just a little too square—or a lot. A look at the by-laws in other Western countries (primarily the UK and USA), as well as posted by the Israeli education ministry, reveals no inclusion of a "fun day" among the acceptable reasons to miss school. Valid reasons include quarantine, illness, and recovery from accident; required court attendance and death in family. There is one clause on educational tours and trips which could be bent to fit the scope of some of these "outings" but I'm fairly certain they aren't intended to include breakfast with mom at a café in Tel Aviv. I suppose the story would be quite different if, as in the United Kingdom, absence of school were considered against the law--offending parents fined for each infraction! It's actually quite amusing to consider how such a fine would go over here in the Middle East where a school's ability to collect annual fees is even problematic.

For the record, there was a time when I anticipated that days in the Israeli public school system would be inconsequential, unnecessary and easily skipped—a long metaphorical climb down from the ivory tower of education I knew growing up in private American institutions. I've come to understand otherwise. Fifteen years experience as a parent here and I'm continually impressed by what I expected to be a far less inspiring, entirely mediocre experience. At this point I'm even willing to admit that my children are actually being educated. I wouldn't dream of withdrawing them from school now and then to give them a break because I think that sticking it out, exactly when they don't feel like it, is part of the reason they go in the first place! In fact, I can't imagine anything more important than encouraging them to learn to cope with demands, difficulty, and effort. Would it be too much to suggest that parents take one step back and stop trying to save their children from living in a world of expectations? It's not terribly difficult to figure out that when roles are blurred, boundaries smudged and limits compromised everyday life becomes that much more difficult to negotiate.

But maybe I've missed an even deeper issue here—one which actually explains what otherwise makes no sense. The answer might just lay in the question: "Who are these days actually fun for?" Perhaps they're more about amusing and relieving the parents' humdrum lives and very little about "saving" the children. Although a mid day tête-à-tête certainly has its appeal, and might very well alleviate my own inertia, I'm pretty much unwilling to give up the pleasure of an empty house. That being said, far be it from me to ruin someone else's idea of fun. Another quick calculation provides the comforting fact that even in the longest-day scenario an astronomical 70% of each day (that's 17 hours) is still available for parental design. Imagine the possibilities and yes, let the fun begin!

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