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Is your child suffering from prodigy fatigue?

The race to be early achievers leads to heightened pressure and anxiety among children. In the long run, it could lead to a poor sense of self and rebellion

Today children zoom in and out of online classes, making every hour count. Some children even finish a class or two before school starts, starting their routine as early as 6am. Photo: iStock
Today children zoom in and out of online classes, making every hour count. Some children even finish a class or two before school starts, starting their routine as early as 6am. Photo: iStock

Having read about the significance of early exposure to a variety of subjects in numerous blogs and books, parents often rush in to start multiple classes for children at an early age. Everyone wants their child to turn into a prodigy.

Pre-pandemic, many children would go from class to class post-school, snacking in the car and catching up on homework immediately after. The schedule hasn’t changed, only the setting has. They zoom in and out of online classes, making every hour count. I know of children who finish a class or two before school starts, starting their routine as early as 6am.

There is no doubt that zero to five years is a significant time for children to enhance synaptic connections in number and density. It is also absolutely true that “practice makes perfect”.

These scientific revelations, backed by research and data, started the era of parents pushing children towards early achievements, selling the idea that if parents didn’t push their children, bought them all kinds of “learning material” and put them through more and more classes, their children would not be achievers. There is no denying that children learnt and parents gleamed with pride, but this has also led to reports of early burnout.

Covid-19 changed our world. When schools and classes shut down and parents had to start working out of home, families had to start spending many more hours together. Adjustments had to be made, online classes had to be booked (even by parents who weren’t thrilled about it) and time schedules put up on pinup boards, with passwords for each one’s gadget and network connection.

Truth be told, even though I am not a very pro-classes mom, I started the hunt for physical trainers and music teachers for my children around the same time, knowing that we were in this for the long haul.

On every webinar I conducted, I was asked how to constructively keep children busy during the lockdown, how to make up for missed school and how to make sure they didn’t miss out on learning during this time. Valid and relevant questions.

The pandemic has impacted parenting in a big way. Many have been good and insightful changes; in some cases it has limited our options.

Shwetambara Sabharwal
Shwetambara Sabharwal

Parental hyper-efficiency is not new

I grew up in Kota, a city known for its engineering and medical entrance exam coaching, and for churning out doctors and engineers. I have seen children scoot in and out of class after class from class VI onwards to get admission to the Indian Institute of Technology, but this really didn’t extend beyond the sciences.

As a mental health professional, I have seen families prioritize achievement and the need to keep their children exposed to, and adept at, learning everything under the sun. Gradually, though, the wheel is turning towards doing less but doing it frequently (read daily).

Parents have understood that if they want their children to be champions in something (which seems to be the baseline expectation), they must choose one field and diligently, tirelessly and consistently practise it.

In many countries, this process is driven by grants and admission processes. In some, gifted children receive scholarships for school and college courses in developing countries, it gives the parents hope, ambition and identity.

Whatever the motivation, the journey is risky

This is something I have lost many a parent-client over, warning them about prodigy fatigue, leading to too much pressure and anxiety, a conditioned sense of self, boredom and rebellion in a few years’ time.

No one wants to slow down. This intensity, speed and frequency impacts children in several physical, psychological and social ways. It is not uncommon for us to hear parents report during history-taking that their children were great students, teachers loved them, they had many friends, loved playing the guitar/ piano , made the state swimming or football team, competing for robotics or aero-dynamics and then something happened and they just gave up. She got bored. He just refused to go for classes.

Burnout is difficult to diagnose in children. For symptoms such as physical or mental fatigue, lethargy, disinterest, mood fluctuations, regressive behaviour or disturbed sleep can be attributed to several reasons.

In the current scenario, while some children are enjoying, and have adapted to, the screen way of education and play, some have started showing signs of discomfort. It could be presumptuous to state that it is due to screen burnout, but it won’t be a far cry.

All-round development of children as we knew it required nourishment, physical exercise, parental love and attention, peer connect, school and social interaction, among other things.

When these are compromised, whether it is due to early pressure to perform, overly strict and disciplined routines that leave no room for free play, missing school and social interactions for classes and competitions, or too many online classes due to the pandemic, the ability of a child to cope with academic, social or miscellaneous stress is reduced. The way a child may have responded to fatigue, hunger, a difficult math problem or bullying may change due to the absence of such key factors in growth and development.

This is a trade-off that parents often overlook. While we all would love to create champions and respect the challenges a family goes through to guide and encourage children to achieve, often several sacrifices are made towards the goals, it is important to factor in fatigue, burnout and rebellion.

Every child is unique and each has a different appetite that varies in timing, rigour and intensity.

Preventing burnout

Start the morning with your children: Whether you get busy or not later in the day, children do. Spend the morning on conversation, planning, a healthy breakfast and cuddles.

Schedule for frequent short breaks: These breaks are not for us to dive in with our questions on what was learnt, they are for children to relax their bodies and minds.

Time and space to recharge: Each child has likes and dislikes. Try and provide opportunities for children to recharge by doing something that is different from what they have been doing in the last few hours. For example, if they have been training for football, a sit-down activity or fun board game will help them recharge. If they have been cracking math problems, taking a walk or doing jumping jacks will help. This changes the synaptic activity in the brain, leaving it refreshed.

Allowing a child to share feelings: This is key as the child may just feel better by voicing their fatigue and feel supported when listened to and accepted.

Recognize not just accomplishments but also the effort: We as parents often offer quick praise to demonstrate our support. Praise needs to be better planned, and offered with caution. Most child prodigies who may drop out of the race report they started valuing themselves if they achieved. If they didn’t, they felt worthless. This comes from being praised only for success. We need to make a conscious effort to appreciate the effort, focus and commitment that out children show. Praise behaviour and attributes that they have control over.

Value they are adding to their own lives by learning: It is very important for us to switch to a growth mindset and show our children that they are learning. As our children invest every iota of energy they have got in adapting to new ways of learning, classes, performing and preparing for bright futures, a reminder to them about how they are adding value by making so much effort in growing will bring a big smile to their faces.

Lastly, develop a healthy philosophy to handle failure. For children who find themselves in the competitive space time and time again, parents’ support and encouragement will make a big difference to keeping burnout at bay. For them to be reminded to appreciate what they learnt, the fact that they tried and experienced a setback, is the big win for this round!

Shwetambara Sabharwal is a Mumbai based psychologist, psychotherapist and a mother of two.

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