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“Spirit Week” Isn’t Fun For Kids In Dysfunctional Families


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Mar 19, 2024
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In my secret Facebook group*, someone brought up the topic of how much parent involvement is expected by schools nowadays. They were mentioning how stressful it is as a parent to engage in constant school activities, like “spirit week,” a common school activity now where a child is supposed to dress differently on every day of a given week, incorporating themes like “Sports Day: wear your favorite team’s jersey,” or “Decades Day: dress like someone from a different decade.” This is not only stressful for parents, but for kids whose parents are struggling with money, mental health, or both.

These events disproportionately affect the kids who don’t have the parental resources to get them the “right” outfit or prop for their costume, and especially kids whose parents don’t remember that the day is coming up. So, the kids whose parents struggle with addiction, depression, marital conflict, or who don’t have the time or money to go all out, or even to participate, end up feeling ashamed and embarrassed on these ostensibly fun school days.

When kids feel they are excluded from doing “normal” things because of their parents’ lack of emotional/financial resources, this leads to a feeling of “being on the outside looking in” all throughout life. I discuss this in depth in this post about how a dysfunctional upbringing makes people feel like an observer rather than a participant in later life. In that post, I say:

If you have always felt on the periphery of life because you didn’t learn how to fit in to society from your family, you are not alone. Many people in therapy have always felt “off” or “weird.” The feeling of being on the outside looking in, and having to painstakingly observe others to figure out how to behave, is well known to children of parents who are depressed, anxious, traumatized, addicted to substances, and/or who have personality disorders. Some of these homes can have intense chaotic conflict or barely anyone speaking to each other. Kids in these situations can’t just invite a friend over, or wouldn’t want to. They are embarrassed of their parents but also feel deep shame for feeling disloyal in this way.

Some people say that kids should learn to roll with the punches, and learn to toughen up and understand that not everything is fair. I am a huge proponent of not bubble wrapping kids, and not overfocusing on them or feeding them fake praise. But I am also a huge fan of equality, and not punishing kids for their parents’ failings. School spirit days are a proxy variable for parental mental health and resources. Would it be fair for parents to take the SAT for their kids? It would not be fair for the children who would do better because of this, and it certainly would be unfair to the kids who would end up with a worse score because of this. School spirit day is much the same idea, but in the social domain, and for younger and more vulnerable kids. Also, it is laughable to anyone who grew up in a dysfunctional home that small efforts to equalize the playing field between them and other kids would somehow make them weak or soft. If you’re in the “don’t make things too easy for kids” camp… Don’t worry, life is hard every single day for kids who grow up in dysfunctional homes!

Is my recommendation to just eliminate days that are fun for the majority of kids? Certainly not. A better solution would be for children to make their own outfits during art class or another class period, so that everyone has the same supplies and the same ability to execute, without needing their parents to be involved. Some schools now take this approach this for the science fair. The kids do their projects during science class or after school, with teacher involvement dispersed among the kids.

Changing science fairs projects to a school activity versus a home activity was a response by some schools to how science fairs went for a while, which was basically a bunch of parents competing with one another. Parental involvement in this case is a proxy variable for how functional the family is versus anything about the child’s own grade-appropriate science ability. The science fair is incredibly embarrassing for kids whose parents don’t have the bandwidth to help them get supplies and plan things out, as they end up with a terrible (read: grade appropriate) project that doesn’t compare to what an adult can do with time, resources, and Google. When kids all have the same time, resources, and access to a teacher, then the science fair is an accurate representation of kids’ ideas and efforts in this realm. My kids’ own school went this route, and the science fair was a lot more interesting and fun to attend as a parent when I knew I was seeing kids’ own work versus that of their parents.

If you yourself are an adult child of a dysfunctional family, and you recognize your own childhood in these examples, read this post and this one. Feelings of shame and not fitting in follow most adult children of dysfunctional families into adulthood, despite their best efforts to repress these feelings or minimize them (more on that last point here). It is never too late to understand more about how your upbringing impacted you, and address this in your own therapy. And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Dysfunctional Upbringings Have Consequences.


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