One day a year, my mom gave me a special gift: She called it a “mental health day.” I was allowed to skip school, and we’d do something fun together — whatever I wanted — just the two of us. Whether it was a trip to the mall for window shopping and lunch, or hanging out in our pajamas watching movies all day, or a picnic in the park, it was always an experience I cherished and looked forward to every year, and remains one of my favorite childhood memories.
There was never a specific date set forth for these mental health days; looking back, I think my mom just knew when I needed a break. Because kids do need breaks, just as much as grown-ups. Though their lives aren’t stressful in the same ways as ours, they still go through things that, from their inexperienced perspective, are really rough. We reflect on childhood and think about all the ways we had it easy, but you have to admit there are also a lot of difficult parts about being a kid. And when the going gets tough, they don’t always have the choice to step back and take a breather (which is probably much of the reason why they resort to their only option: feigning illness).
I’m a firm believer in the restorative power of an unanticipated day off, which is why I’ve continued the “mental health day” tradition with my four kids. I know it’s time when they start showing signs of strain: a fight with a friend, maybe, or an unusual reluctance to get up for school in the morning. When they’re worn down, a free day is just what the doctor ordered. They choose anything they want to do, but surprisingly, it’s never anything super-elaborate or costly. It’s always quality time that they crave above all else, at least at this age. “Let’s play the Xbox, Mom!” they’ll say, or suggest a trip to the grocery store to load up on Cheetos.
It’s not always my ideal day off; my children and I have pretty different ideas about what activities we consider fun. But the joy and enthusiasm and relief they experience is worth every minute I spend enduring a Minecraft marathon. Their shift in attitude is palpable. Their emotional tanks are being refilled, not just through a much-needed break from their daily routines, but through spending valuable one-on-one time with their mom. And they perk up like flowers being watered after a drought.
Quality time can be hard to come by, especially in families like mine with more than a couple of kids. But when I take one of my kids out of school for the day, there’s no one else to compete for my attention. We’ve got hours to ourselves. We get to talk and laugh, and I get to rediscover how awesome these little people I’ve created actually are. It’s kind of sad to consider how often, in the hustle and bustle of everyday, I look at my kids without actually seeing them. But when I take the time to focus, I’m amazed. They amaze me. They are awesome.
I know how good it feels to take a step back once in a while, and I give myself permission to do exactly that when I need to. So I want my kids to know that there’s nothing wrong with taking care of themselves, and prioritizing their mental well-being over other obligations sometimes. I’m hoping that through these special one-on-one days, they grow to understand that — plus another, equally important message: I love you, and I can’t wait to spend time together.