As a child, I used to play with dandelions. I would pick their leaves to feed them to my aunt’s chickens, enjoying the sight of their seed heads and the way their parachute seeds floated on the breeze.
As an adult, I notice dandelions everywhere in Bucharest, and how much more often than not they are without flowers or seeds. I also notice the leaves of various specimens of this plant and wonder about the slight differences in their lion-toothed shapes—the name dandelion in English coming, of course, from the Old French dent de lion, “lion’s tooth.” Between Europe, North America, and Asia, there are over 250 documented species of dandelion, and even if this plant is considered a weed nowadays, its life cycle continues to enchant people. Here’s a time-lapse video that made waves over the internet in 2018.
Dandelion has, in fact, been used as medicine for many centuries, as it has several health benefits if used in certain time-honored ways. Incidentally, the French now call this plant pissenlit, literally “piss in bed,” in reference to its diuretic properties.
Okay, dandelion intro aside, I started writing this post because I keep hearing these days how children and teenagers are overwhelmed by their schoolwork and how the Western system “is failing our kids.” Well, I happen to agree that kids and high school students have too much on their plate, but what many adults don’t fully realize, because they/we are immersed in the internet every day for hours on end, is that things could be much better if children weren’t spending so much of their free time entertaining themselves via phone apps and other internet technology—they have more than enough use of it for school.
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And yes, I, too, played video games growing up. I also played some as a young adult. But I remember the good old days when I would not even talk on the phone with my friends. I would take walks and converse at leisure, as if we were the most relaxed people on earth, which of course we weren’t, being that we were, after all, teenagers. But we spent time walking past trees and looking at kids playing in parks, looking at each other as we walked side by side, and inviting one another home to enjoy some soft drinks and crackers (admittedly not the best choice nutritionally) once we started feeling pangs of hunger—which, incidentally, we rarely felt, because exercise has this wonderful advantage of postponing hunger feelings and bathing the body in these amazing sensations of well-being, particularly when coupled with in-person communication with a congenial person.
Later on I came to appreciate the power of tea, especially when coupled with friendship. But for that to happen, young people have to put their phones aside and meet in person. Of course that’s hard to do in these Covid days, but we can still walk side by side in parks, taking advantage of the phytoncides given off by trees (essential oils that boost our immune system and general health along with our mood—here’s more about it and the health benefits of walking), enjoying each other’s bodily presence, even if we decide not to hug for a while. Also, I find that reading a book in a park is amazing for my well-being.
And when I can’t read outside and want to take a short break, rather than checking my phone I look for a nook, a comfy blanket, and a good book, and I retreat there with a cup of tea.
Of course, time in nature and in other reinvigorating environments doesn’t solve the problem of curriculum requirements for young kids, preteens, and teenagers. They live in a big, complex world and school is trying to prepare them not just by imparting knowledge but also by making them more supple when it comes to using technology and learning how to learn new skills and knowledge by themselves. In 2020 my ten-year-old niece in Canada learned how to use the computer for school, with everything that it implies: chatting software, uploading and editing photos, typing the best way she figured how (her mother tried to teach her the correct way by painting her nails), and then her skills in the virtual world transferred to the phone, where she has learned to type a little Romanian in order to communicate with her family in the old country and where she’s recording sweet voice messages for us, and so on.
She’s a sponge, as teachers are fond of saying, and yes, there’s the danger of overwhelming this kid who wants to do everything well and get top scores in every subject. But here’s where the family can help these kids form good habits. My niece wrote in a piece for school about spending weekends in a tent or cabin with her family while hiking, about playing board games in the evening and chatting and laughing over dinner. She could also have written, for instance, about cooking with her mom, who helps her with healthy food choices at a time when the curriculum, too, pushes kids to become mindful of nutrition by asking them to form healthy plates for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
I agree kids have it hard, but if they can be parted from technology before they get to looking at their phone 150 times a day, as Professor David Strayer says in Florence Williams’s The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative that the average person does (average from where, though), things can change a lot for the better, even with this onslaught of technology that Covid has brought—and which pundits say would have happened anyway, but in a less accelerated fashion. In fact, given that The Nature Fix was published in February 2017, the figure is probably much higher for 2020 and 2021.
But yes, we do have nature. All it takes is going outside and finding things to do away from our screens. Or getting busy inside cooking and feasting our senses and brains on the beauty of food (here’s a recipe—for a healthy, satisfying homemade Romanian pizza—that’s all about the beauty of foods and cooking). Or puttering outside in the garden, if we have any such space. Or planting seeds on the balcony.
And here’s a bit for an older kid reading this post. If I’ve learned anything as a lifelong student, I’ve learned this: knowing what’s important and prioritizing it, and not getting lost in using the internet or otherwise dealing with technology, is the key to maintaining a good frame of heart and mind. In short, be selective. If you want good grades in grad school, for instance, or you’re simply excited by the wealth of resources available, don’t try to read everything you can find. Try to pick up from your professors how to cull essential readings from others you can get by without, and do that. Do your best not to get lost. Figure out some priorities in your research and your life and also ways to make the most, within a time frame, of certain important resources. And for the rest, make sure you put down your phone, close your laptop, and spend time in nature and with your family. Or cooking, exercising. But don’t make it hard on yourself, if you can help it. And make sure that every day you learn ways to help yourself deal better with the challenges in your life.
Of course, sometimes it’s good to widen the net and read and experience things more widely. But the trick, again, is not to get lost. Set a timer if you have to, or decide on only one day a week or every two weeks when you allow yourself to spend time reading blog posts, for example. Of course, you may come across various posts when you look up certain things, but I’m talking about blogs you subscribe to, for instance.
Time to close my laptop for the evening.
To a happier, healthier life,
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