“I don’t want to go to school today,” my six-year-old muttered into her pillow as I opened her blinds and started rifling through her closet for clothes.
“How come?” I asked, throwing a pair of jeans onto her bed. She usually woke up bright and happy, so I assumed something must be upsetting her: A bully, a school project, maybe a sore throat.
“I just want to be with you,” she replied.
My instinct was to pull the blanket back and say, “Yeah, well, I don’t want to work today, but I have to, just like you have to go to school.” But instead I surprised both of us. I told her she could stay home.
In fact, I’ve let my kids, including my preschooler, skip school several times since then, and will continue letting them do this as they get older. Admittedly, my work-from-home job affords me the flexibility to keep them home on a whim. But more importantly, I’ve come to realize something: Kids need mental health days, too.
A few years ago, I would have scoffed at this. What does a six-year-old have to worry about? Her responsibilities are virtually nil, schoolwork consists of practicing her printing, and her day is structured around play. But to suggest she doesn’t have stress, simply because my stresses are bigger (bills, taxes, career) is shortsighted. Dismissing her worries and fatigue won’t help her learn how to manage stress and avoid burn out as she grows. I’d rather teach her about self-care now, while she’s young. And yes, even little kids need self-care.
That first morning I let her stay home, I sat with her at breakfast and asked what she wanted to do. Her response was sweet, and a bit poignant: “Polly always gets to go with you to the grocery store on Fridays and I never get to. I want to get groceries with you.”
She didn’t want to get banana splits and binge watch Fuller House. She didn’t want to go the mall and raid Claire’s. She wanted to run errands. With me. So that’s what we did. We got groceries, we went for hot chocolate, we read stories on the couch, and I let her watch my iPad in bed (a special treat in our house) while I worked.
Since then, I’ve learned to see how even a day full of play can be feel overly structured and exhausting for a little kid. You have to sit still in music class, be quiet during attendance, remain composed during recess spats, use your listening ears at Brownies, and finish your dinner or get in trouble. She may not have to pay a mortgage, but she does feel the burden of responsibility. Sometimes, she just needs a break from that life to hit the reset button.
Mental health is a conversation we’ve been having a lot in recent years, fueled in part by Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign to destigmatize mental health issues, and the countless celebrities, like Olympian Clara Hughes, who have joined the movement to share their story. In fact, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem every year, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. And these rates apply to children, too.
I want to start having these conversations with my kids while they are still young, so that mental illness—or even just admitting that you are feeling down—isn’t a taboo subject in our family. I want them to know that I can see past my own daily stresses, and recognize theirs, too.
I remember when my own parents began giving me the tools to recognize burn-out and anxiety, and the freedom to stay home from school. The caveat was that I did well in school, and days at home weren’t about skipping presentations or tests. They were about sitting at home in a quiet, empty house and hitting the pause button. They were about accepting that we sometimes get overwhelmed, and it’s okay to take a break.
I want to push my kids to be their best, and teach them that they need to persevere through struggle and hardship. But I also want them to recognize exhaustion and anxiety. As well as the simple fact that life is short, so why not skip a day and go to the park, eat ice cream in the grass, and watch TV in PJs with your mama?
When I let my daughters stay home from school, I’m giving them permission to take a deep breath and exhale, regardless of why they need the break. Before I know it, they’ll be moved out, paying their own mortgages, building their own careers, and caring for their own babies. And I hope that, when it all starts to feel like too much, they’ll know it’s okay to take the day off and re-group. Or, better yet, give me a call, so we can do it together.