Hitting the Books

A mother yells to her child upstairs from the bottom of the staircase:

Mom: Betaaaaaaa!! Are you doing the studying?!
Child: Yes mommy, I am "doing the studying"!!
Mom: Betaaaaaaa!! Make sure you study hard, those tests von't ace themselves!
Child: Yes mommy, I know, I am hitting the books...!!
Mom: Betaaaaaaa!! Hit them harder, you know how much your daddy vants you to become a doctor!
Child groans.

OK, so while the betas were exaggerated and the yelling from the bottom of the staircase may not have happened in your house (and for clarification, neither in mine!), most Muslim parents are quite hung up on pushing their children into mainly professional career streams (a whole other blog topic!). Furthermore, there's a misconception that children can achieve high grades and academic success by hitting the books 24/7 or as much as their eyes and brain allow them to.

This practice could not be more wrong.

Research from the field of learning and memory, physical activity, mental health, and academic outcomes ALL points to the same simple, yet powerful conclusion: that students' grades will increase if they have a healthy balance of activities OUTSIDE of the academic field. In other words, they need to exercise and play sports; they need time for friends and socialization; they need time for sleep and decompression; and they need time for volunteerism and part-time jobs. Yet it seems like parents panic the moment the books close and they worry endlessly that their children's brains are not absorbing information like sponges, as they rightly should. And here lies yet another misconception.

I did not live a very balanced when I was in school, and even during undergrad, it wasn't until my final year that I finally explored other endeavours and saw my GPA jump up to 3.90. Miraculous it may seem, but SubhanAllah, my final year saw me work part time with the U of C's volunteer services and co-manage a volunteer program, exercise more frequently, and take time out to spend with my close circle of friends. It made all the difference in the world. AND I had managed to take option courses to balance out the rigorous microbiology courses I had to pummel through for my degree. (Side note: never ever take ALL core courses and expect to hold onto your sanity)

Having worked within the Muslim community for three years, I find it safe to say that not many students live a balanced life. The academic pressures are high, and parents are pushing more for grade achievement while not considering that their children's physical, mental, and social "brains" need to be developed as well. I hear students say they study 5-6 hours a night and I'm shocked! They aren't getting enough sleep, aren't exercising the recommended 90 minutes a day, and anxiety seems to be rising in occurrence. We are raising a group of sleep deprived, anxious, low self-esteemed children whose only goal in life seems to be getting above 90% on their report card. And God forbid if they get 89%, their teachers are going to hear it from the parents.

So, what do parents need to consider? The following please!

1. Parents, ask yourselves to define success for your child? In a broader sense, it's much than grades, and eventually, after your child gets into post-secondary education, their GPA doesn't matter all that much. Your child needs to be able to navigate the social and cultural world "out there", and the time they have in school before post-secondary education is the perfect time and place to practice these skills. You need your child to be well-rounded: book smart AND street smart! Now that's foh suh!

2. Remember, we don't absorb everything we study the first time, and amount of time spent reading and studying is NOT proportionate to the amount of material we will remember. It's best to study in shorter spurts using a variety of learning methods. Engage the senses people!

3. Physical activity actually increases a student's performance in class and with learning. Exercise does wonders for ALL muscles in the body, including the brain. Ensure your child has at least one hour of physical activity/sports when they come home from school. And yes parents, that means turning off the video game console! Wii is not considered cardiovascular activity!

4. Enroll your child in a weekly activity or lesson. There's everything from karate to swimming to sports to girls and boys groups, etc. Not only will they get exposure to the world outside of their school and home, but a break from studying will enhance the skills they need for life after high school!

5. Ensure that your child is getting at least 9 hours of sleep a night. Sleep deprivation is horrible for learning, since our brain uses sleep to consolidate information we've learned during the day. Most kids don't get more than 6 hours a night. Lack of sleep is linked to a myriad of health conditions and you're setting your kids up to have bad sleeping habits as they become adults.

6. If your child is struggling academically, you really need to investigate why...there's no clear cut answer but don't jump to blaming it on the fact that they aren't studying enough. I remember a time when my parents were furious that my GPA during my first year of undergrad was 2.70. And their advice of "study harder" didn't help. It turned out that I despised biological sciences and that was the reason for my demise...Which leads me to my next point!

7. We all have certain skill sets and strengths. Hence why there are a myriad of professions and careers for children to choose from. It is quite common for students to change their minds many times before eventually finding the best program fit for them. So, it's great if your child knows what faculty they want to enter at university or college. But if they don't, then allow time for exploration. It's rare that a young adult fully knows who they are as a person and what they want out of life before their mid-20s. We further know that the final stages of brain development continues until that time and even beyond. So we really need to align up our expectations with that of development, and allow time for exploration and trial and error. So if it takes one more year to graduate with a degree, then so be it. If your child wants to switch faculties mid-way or take time off, then so be it. Why place pressure on your child to succeed when all that will happen is more money is wasted on courses they don't want to take, and their self-esteem further plummets.

I have more to say about Muslim parents and career choices and exploration, but I'll save that for another blog! I just really and truly hope that parents take a step back and play a more supportive role in their child's academic career. And that they come to embrace and understand that balance, as Islam prescribes, is the true key to success. 

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