Mom Confessional: I Let My Kids Skip School for ‘Mental Health Days’

Mom Confessional: I Let My Kids Skip School for ‘Mental Health Days’

One mom writes about how playing hooky taught her more than a day in the classroom.

By: Leah Maxwell

I remember the delicious sensation of looking up at the clock, realizing my classmates were probably working on multiplication tables at that very moment, and then sinking back into the couch with the latest YA novel, basking in the feeling that, today at least, I was liberated. I was playing hooky from school, and it felt good.

Whether I was actually playing hooky is up for debate, though, since I wasn’t engaging in any traditional school-skipping behaviors -- no smoking secret cigarettes behind the bleachers or prank-calling local businesses. I was, in fact, on one-day academic leave from third grade, not only sanctioned by my mom but suggested by her after she had looked at me that morning, all wan and wilted, and asked if I needed to take a “mental health day.” It took me less than a second to accept.

Yep, my parents sometimes let me skip school “just because.” It only happened once or twice a year, tops, and the fact that I never abused the policy surely made it easy for them to be generous, but it still always felt like illicit behavior, which, now that I think about it, probably made it all the more enjoyable. I didn’t worry back then whether it was a sign of good parenting or bad parenting or what the long-term implications might be. I simply loved that they could see when I needed a break -- even when I couldn’t see it myself -- and that they allowed me to take that time off, even if it meant bending the rules a little.

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As I grew up, I began to understand what valuable life lessons those hooky days had taught me -- how to listen to myself, how to take care of myself, and why it’s OK to break a rule once in a while. And now that I’ve become a parent, I hope as my own kids grow up and work their way through the school system that I’m able to ignore the noise of controversy buzzing around the topic and teach them the same things and in the same way.

I’ve watched friends debate whether it’s OK to let a kid miss a few days of school for a family vacation or other special event, but that’s a wholly different issue than letting your kid take a day off because you think he needs it. Or even just because he wants it (so long as it’s not to avoid a test or some other responsibility he’s better off facing head-on, of course). I can see both sides, and while I couldn’t agree more that part of our role as parents is to teach our children to respect policies and be accountable and show up when and where they’re expected, I always come down on the side of believing that our kids have much more to learn than what they’re taught in school or by school.

Attendance policies these days seem to be stricter than ever (and it’s no wonder, considering they’re often tied to funding and how teachers and schools are evaluated in the era of No Child Left Behind), but our kids also seem to be working harder than ever, and that includes not just school but homework and music lessons and sports practices and and and…until it’s time to flop into bed for a stretch before getting up to do it all over again. Teachers, coaches, and, yes, we parents expect a lot out of them, and the pressure is constant. Our kids are TIRED. Our kids need mental health days the way they need vegetables and sunlight and fresh air. They need to know their happiness is valued as much as their skills and performance.


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Of course, playing hooky doesn’t come without consequences, but that’s a lesson kids should learn too. I learned that sometimes spending a weekday at home (or at a museum, or at the movies) was worth the extra homework and a stern look from my teacher. I also learned that although I’d never win a Perfect Attendance Award, I felt my own sense of pride in never once faking a sick day or skipping school on the sly. Perhaps most importantly, though, I learned that my parents understood that being a kid wasn’t all cupcakes and hopscotch -- that it was real, hard work -- and this is the message I want to keep close to my heart as I raise my own kids. I want to teach them the four R’s: reading, writing, ’rithmetic, and rest.

What’s your take on mental health days?

Leah Maxwell is a book editor, freelance writer, cereal addict, wife, and mom to two young boys. She has been blogging at A Girl and a Boy since 2003.

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