The XX Factor

Mental Health Days vs. the Puritan Work Ethic

On the NYT ‘s Motherlode blog today, Jody Becker admits to thinking she’d been conned: Her second-grader, the morning after Halloween, parlayed a wan visage, dragging steps, a lot of sighing, and a couple of well-placed, “I don’t feel goods” into a day off from school, which she spent curled up on the couch reading in enviable comfort. If I have been had, Becker asks, would that be such a bad thing? Her own mother was of the “if you aren’t bleeding or barfing, you’re going” school of thought, and she herself would never have been allowed to take a day off. But her child “needed a day off, and she got it.”

But Lisa Belkin, framing Becker’s words, nails the real question: “Is the message that everyone needs to recharge now and then? Or that you can stay home if you pretend you are sick?” Most commenters supported the idea of the occasional mental health day, but many admitted that in practice, they feared that second message too much to let it really happen. (One commenter noted that she got more days off from school for “mental health” or other educational activities than her brother did, because her brother relished missing school more.)

I suspect “everyone needs to recharge” is a little too sophisticated for the younger set, and I’m afraid that if school becomes optional, or even faintly debatable, every morning in our house will turn into a battleground. There’s also the inarguable fact that mental health days for them will not be mental health days for me. I sympathize with the working mother who pointed out that while she might support a mental health day, she only gets a certain number of days off to care for a sick child a year, so that child had better actually be sick. In other words, ask me about “mental health days,” and I’m gonna say no.

And yet I don’t object to an occasional day off. I’m not under any delusion that school is seven straight hours of learning, and while my 4- and 5-year-olds don’t get the “recharge” concept, I certainly do. I might knowingly let my kids put one over on me once in a while, like Becker. But I don’t plan to actually teach my kids that it’s OK to declare your own holidays. I’d rather they came to that one on their own, and ideally with some difficulty. Maybe I secretly think that if it’s too easy to take that “mental health day,” then you don’t really need it.

Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine from Wikimedia Commons.