August and the start of the school year has always felt like a time for new beginnings – perhaps more so than New Year’s Day.
This time of year finds me reflecting on a child’s success. As a pediatrician, while I won’t claim to have found the perfect recipe, I have benefited over the years from the collective wisdom of parents, colleagues, community members, mental health providers, writers, spiritual leaders, teachers and especially children themselves, including my own.
By success, I don’t mean academic and/or athletic brilliance, awards, recognition, trophies, acceptance to the best college and the like. Rather, I am more interested in the abstract versions of success such as resilience, perseverance, kindness, empathy, self-awareness, self-sufficiency, health, and joy – or happiness, if you prefer. I am interested in the attributes of a future generation that is well-prepared to build on those that have gone before. Let me share what has been shared with me.
While much has been said of the merits of seizing opportunity, developing various skill sets and generally scheduling every waking hour with activities designed to cultivate greatness, or at least a hearty resume, I believe that down time is important for children (and adults). Time for reflection is a lost art. Does anyone remember Henry David Thoreau? None other than science now teaches us that such time is the nidus for creativity – the most human of human traits.
Children need security. Decades of evidence now support that adverse childhood experiences and childhood trauma lead to social dysfunction, adverse mental health, chronic illness and premature death. A safe home, committed caregivers, a nutritious diet, daily physical activity and a hearty dose of love all go a long way toward building a healthy lifestyle and building resilience – the ability to bounce back from adversity. They also promote self-esteem and encourage each individual child to seek and find his or her potential.
Sleep is a necessity. I could easily compare and contrast the challenges faced by the over-scheduled child, but in reality, even the schools could learn the lessons of brain science. For the average school-aged child, eight to 10 hours of nightly sleep is critical to brain development. For adolescents, even more may be needed and with a circadian rhythm (internal clock) that varies from the “early to rise” school schedule.
Failure is an option. In fact, it is a necessity. If we do not allow and indeed encourage our children to take risks and fail, then they cannot truly succeed. The greatest lessons of life, the greatest discoveries of modern history and the humility necessary for a successful life are all rooted in the experience of failure. We should not avoid it, we should not condemn it, we should embrace it as the crucible of our children’s success.
Lastly, our children need the experience of being a part of something bigger than themselves. This begins with family – a common culture, a shared story, a place to call home and unconditional love. It progresses to include a broader group, from which to draw wisdom and to whom to give service.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.