Lifehacker contributor Starre Julia Vartan wrote about the importance of taking mental health days from your job. Mental health is health, and taking care of ourselves should be a priority. But what about our kids?
I’ve heard from parents who’ve admitted they let their children occasionally miss school in order to recharge, and people would respond as if they were allowing their kids to swipe a bag of M&Ms from the bottle shop down the street. A student staying home because they have bronchitis is encouraged (demanded, even), doing so to veg out and watch Riverdale after an intense week of AP tests is “playing hooky.”
This should change, and I believe it is. Author Alexandra Rosas penned a Facebook post about how she used to let her kids take a set number of days off, even when others judged her for it:
When my kids were in school, they were allowed 10 days maximum per year as days off before their status would be noted as *problematic*. We took all 10 days every year. Sometimes as 3 day weekends, other times as sleep in mental break days. We went to movies, museums, water parks.
One day, my son went back to school and I heard him say he had just seen Spider-Man. “When did you go?,” someone asked. “Yesterday. We took off and went to the movies.” He said it with such ease, like his life was normally taking a day off for fun.
Later, and you’ve got to believe this, this kid’s mum walked over to me and judged me. “My son said you take off days for fun. I would never teach my child that school is not important.” I didn’t take the bait. I walked away.
For Rosas, whose kids had 4.0 GPAs, those days off benefited the whole family. She tells me she started giving her kids days off when her child came home from school one afternoon and went straight up to his room.
“I followed him upstairs and when I opened the door, he said, ‘I just need to breathe alone. There’s no time to breathe alone in school.’ I kept him home the next day. I woke him up early so he wouldn’t be startled at the change and just said, ‘We’re staying home today. What would you like to do?’” Some commenters recalled their own parents letting them miss school periodically, and how important that was to their overall well-being.
As someone who grew up earning several “perfect attendance” awards, the concept of letting kids take mental health days is new to me. (By the way, exactly zero people in my life ever cared about my perfect attendance awards, except perhaps my mother.) But setting up such a system can help kids both in the short and long term. Here’s why:
You’re showing your kids that they are more than their grades. If you have high achieving students who are prone to anxiety, you’re signalling that it’s ok to rest, and that their health matters more than their academic accolades.
Taking breaks makes you more productive, not less.
Stress can manifest itself as physical illness, anyway.
You’re teaching them, early on, how to build rest into their schedules. This is something I’ve struggled with as an adult - it’s often not until I’m crumbling in every area of my life that I think, “Hm, maybe I should take some time to recharge.” If your kids are granted a certain number of free days, they can figure out the most effective times to use them. This might take some trial and error, but it’s better to mess up when the stakes are relatively low.
If you take your kids’ mental health seriously when they’re young, they’ll be more likely to advocate for their own mental health as adults.
If you have multiple kids, you can use those days to spend one-on-one time with each of them throughout the year.
Weekends can be chaotic, especially for kids in big families. A mental health day can let a kid really retreat - there are no birthday parties or “family fun days” to attend.
If you don’t let them have days off in a systematic way, they might just fake a physical illness (haven’t we all at one point?).
So how do you start implementing mental health days for your kids? This is tricky; it depends on their needs and your own ability to take days off from work (if your children aren’t old enough to stay home alone). Start by setting some guidelines - for instance, you might let your kids take three days off per school year as long as long as they are doing well in their classes.
And the time off can’t fall on test or presentation days. Also, be careful with the system. If you find that your child consistently hates school, know that there are deeper issues here and a few days off won’t solve them.
My children are still young, so we haven’t had talks about mental health days yet, but I plan to when they get older. I want them to understand what they can handle and what they can’t - that’s a skill that goes far beyond any silly school certificate.