I’ve come to realize that the occasional day off is not only acceptable—it could be beneficial.
For years, my wife would suggest we take a vacation during the school year that would require our kids to miss a few days of school. It would be cheaper and less crowded than traveling on school holidays, she would sensibly point out, and besides, a few absences will not ultimately make a difference in their education. I resisted, arguing that it would send the wrong message and model the wrong values; when school is open, our kids should be there, unless they’re sick. School is valuable, and missing days should be something done rarely and only when necessary.
Then we had a family bar mitzvah in Florida that required taking at least one day off from school, and this time I agreed with my wife that we should extend the stay and make an actual vacation out of it. As long as we were going through the hassle and expense of flying to Florida, I conceded, we should have a chance to relax and have fun there, aside from the family event. As a result, the kids missed four days of school—and neither the sky nor their grades fell because of it.
While I’m not exactly a convert to the hooky-playing lifestyle, the Florida trip did help me ease up on my hardline approach to the topic. I’ve come to realize that the occasional day off is not only acceptable—it could be beneficial. Kids, like grown-ups, may need an occasional day off for mental health, just as they need to take off for physical illness. It all comes down to why your kid is missing school, and what she’s doing with her unsanctioned free time.
Of course, a day spent at home should not be an excuse for playing videogames and texting. It is, however, a great time to read for pleasure, do an art project, or pursue a non-digital creative activity, such as gardening or cooking with you. Then again, if you don’t object to screens, be flexible. But resist the urge to park them on an iPad or videogame console all day.
And just as important: Your child must be held responsible for his homework and making up any other assignments he missed in school that day. When we went to Florida, our kids notified their teachers in advance; they got the homework and other assignments they’d be missing, took them along, and set aside time during the vacation to focus on their work. The airplane ride was a great time for this.
All that said, if your child suggests a mental health day when he is supposed to be in school, it’s essential to probe what’s behind it. Is he truly burned out—or is something else going on? Kids are great at knowing precisely what to say to elicit parents’ empathy and get the response they want, but is that claim of exhaustion really masking the fact that he’s behind on schoolwork or scared of a test? Or worse, is he falling behind more seriously on his academics—or being bullied or facing other social problems?
If a child’s request to play hooky becomes increasingly desperate-sounding or frequent, it’s time to look deeper into what’s going on at school, by speaking with her, with teachers, guidance counselors, and even with other parents. The occasional day of playing hooky is fine—using it to escape from more serious problems is not.