The mega story of this Tokyo Olympics has been Simone Biles withdrawing from the Gymnastics Team Finals and other events, citing mental health concerns. Pundits and parents everywhere have either applauded her for her courage, or vilified her for letting her team and country down. Biles herself said “We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do”.
Another high-profile sports personality, tennis star Naomi Osaka, faced public condemnation after refusing to appear at mandatory press conferences at the French Open in June, stating that press conferences are unhealthy and amount to “kicking a person when they are down”. She withdrew from both the French Open and Wimbledon for ‘personal health’ reasons, after being fined by authorities for not talking to the press. And it’s not just women who are prioritizing mental and physical health – many football players, including notably Chris Borland (a former 49ers linebacker) at the very young age of 24, have retired due to risk of concussion injuries.
Maybe times have changed for the better. Who can forget Kerri Strug in the 1996 Olympics? She injured her ankle on her first vault, and still went on to do the second, under immense pressure from her coach, her team, and perhaps her own expectations, to guarantee a gold medal for the USA. She sustained a severe injury to her ankle at the end of her second vault, and had to permanently retire from the sport. She became a national sports hero for her sacrifice, but can anyone argue definitively that this tradeoff was worthwhile?
Granted, the struggles of Simone, Naomi, and other sports figures are playing out on a national or world stage, and they are trying to balance health, wellbeing and happiness with wealth, fame and glory. However, these tradeoffs can be equally challenging and debilitating even when the stakes are much lower.
Indian and South Asian parents, particularly of middle and high-schoolers – this is addressed to you. What life lessons are we teaching our children? Our kids have internalized that the definition of ‘success’ is measured by job title and salary, and is achieved by attending highly ranked colleges and getting one of a limited set of jobs. In pursuit of this narrow goal, some kids get overwhelmed, sleep-deprived and overworked; others desperately try to fit their square selves into round holes.
Teenagers navigating middle and high schools are at a very vulnerable age – they are trying to figure out who they are, and define themselves, but uncritically absorb the values and priorities of the society around them, and act according to perceived peer pressure and parental persuasion. And in the high-performing community we live in, parents, teachers, and the kids themselves, seem to readily tolerate poor social, emotional and physical health amongst kids, in pursuit of ‘success’, narrowly defined. This poor judgment is leading to overwhelm and stress, behavioral health disorders, and premature burnout among kids. Wouldn’t we rather have a ‘successful life’ also include mental and physical health, liking what you do, and free time to find your passion, pursue creative outlets and contribute positively to society?
How can we parents help our children develop a balanced perspective? In fact, how do we broaden our own outlook to embrace different definitions of success? The goal of parents is not to somehow shepherd their kids into college, which trains them for their first job. Rather, the goal of parents should be to impart life skills, soft skills, and experiences that will prepare their kids for ‘life’.
Towards this goal and with a mission to help children develop self-esteem, feel validated, acknowledged and appreciated for who they are, a group of dedicated Bay Area parents have developed a program called FreeFlight, Launchpad for Life. FreeFlight, an initiative of the nonprofit A Future for Every Child, in partnership with the Taarika Foundation, is a new multi-year self-discovery program for middle and high school-aged children coming together as a parent-child affinity group. Children identify their aptitude, strengths and weaknesses, and grow as they learn. Parents and children jointly explore a broad perspective of what ‘success’ means, and discover pathways for the children to develop into multi-dimensional, engaged, happy adults.
FreeFlight is modeled after other parent/child national clubs, National Charity League (NCL), and Young Men’s Service League (YMSL) that use the context of volunteering and charity work to develop skills in children. FreeFlight parents and children come to monthly sessions of self-discovery and reflection, community-building activities, experiential learning of life and soft skills, exposure to diverse careers, and personal, interpersonal, and intellectual exploration, to foster development of the ‘whole’ child, leading to fulfilling careers, adulthood and life. FreeFlight has held 3 successful introductory sessions this summer in the Bay Area, and is set to launch officially in the Fall of 2021. See afutureforeverychild.org/freeflight for details on how to join the program.
Gita Gopal founded A Future for Every Child in 2018 along with her husband Madan Gopal. She is a long time Bay Area resident and retired high-tech executive. A mother of 3, Gita is passionate about supporting the journey of youth to adulthood.
Priya Dharan, a mother of two young adults, is a passionate advocate of community health initiatives especially those focused on youth and adolescent mental health. Her day job is at a workplace emotional wellbeing solutions provider.