Thursday, August 28, 2014

Are we blindly in love with our children?

The well-known Australian author John Marsden recently wrote a short piece in the Australian College of Educators publication 'Professional Educator' (Vol 13, Issue 3). As well as being a great author of children's and young adult books, he runs an alternative school in rural Victoria (Australia) for about 150 children called Candlebark. His key criteria for building the perfect school include having lots of space, interesting buildings, good resources, a challenging playground, great Internet and a variety of farm animals.

Like many teachers and principals he has some common concerns about education. For example, he's concerned about bullying. But not bullying by children of other children, he's concerned about bullying by parents of teachers and principals. How does he experience this bullying? In his words, at the hands of people who he describes as "in love" with their children. He describes it this way:
"We are seeing an epidemic of terrible parenting at the moment. Not just the familiar benign (and sometimes malign) neglect of decades past, but a new phenomenon: educated middle-class parents who don't just love their children, but are in love with them. This is another manifestation of narcissism. The fruit of their loins must be superior to every other child who has walked the earth... such parents agonise over every little disappointment their child suffers, lavish them with praise when they manage to eat a green bean ('We are so proud of you'), record every moment of their lives on camera, encourage them to parrot adult phrases at each other ('Scott you hurt my feelings when you took my pencil sharpener yesterday'), manipulate their friendships and encourage their feuds... In short, they minimise their children's transgressions, block the school's attempts to create a culture with consistent values, have no regard for those who are hurt by their children's narcissism, and blame the school for the child's aberrant behaviour. They are doing awful damage, irreparable damage, to their kids."
These are strong words, but John Marsden isn't the first teacher or principal to say such things. But before every parent becomes defensive at his words, it might be helpful to use his comments to shine a light on our parenting skills and our attitudes towards schools and teachers. I haven't taught for many years in a primary school, but when I did I can't say I had the experience that Marsden describes. As a teacher I had a position of authority that was respected. This meant that parents didn't question my every move, nor the sometimes critical comments I made about their children. Their first reaction was not immediately to defend their child. As a child if ever I complained about my teachers my Dad would typically say, "you probably deserved to be punished". We need to teach our children to show respect for their parents, for teachers and in fact for all people in society who fulfil roles with some authority. We also need to demonstrate some respect for them ourselves.

Above: My one-teacher school

When I took action as a teacher parents usually stood with me rather than in opposition to me. I can recall one memorable morning when I was teaching in a one-teacher school (I had 31 children across seven grades). I was standing in the driveway before school as parents and children were arriving. A child in year 3 was abusing his mother as he was getting out of the car. I grabbed him by the arm, pulled him out and said sternly, "I don't ever want to hear you speak to your mother like that again". His mother thanked me and she went home.  If I did this today I would probably be disciplined for grabbing the child, and the parent might well tell be to butt out of their parenting.

I saw a daytime breakfast host stand recently stand up on the set when a policeman walked in as a guest. The other panellists looked at her, laughed and asked, "Why are you standing"? She replied, "it was spontaneous, my father always taught me to stand whenever a policeman entered a room". It was a ritual that was a sign of respect. Another example comes from a school I visited this week, where there is a daily ritual of unknown origin that they say has been around for years. At the end of the day as students file out of the room their teacher is standing at the door to shake the hand of each student. The child thanks the teacher and in turn, the teacher thanks the child. The above examples are small things, but they show a respect for teachers and others in authority, which is sadly lacking in communities today. I suspect that this is more than just a minor lack of manners and etiquette; it shows something much deeper about parenting and how we raise our children. I think we need to take heed of John Marsden's wise (and confronting) words; there is great wisdom in what he has to say.


Rachel Chaston said...

Great post. I good conversational starter for parents and teachers. Your shared experiences - shaking the hands and thanking children as they leave (and Vice Versa)- are good traditions that, I believe, would benefit a revival in our schools.

Rachel Chaston said...

And, I really should have edited the writing in my post.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Rachel, I appreciate your comment. I think there are a number of basic things that we can do that will make a difference, small rituals will help. These might seem trivial, but they do reinforce basic levels of mutual respect and a willingness to see that teachers have professional knowledge and important judgements to make.