Parents generally believe that they know their child better than anyone else in the world and of course they are right, no single person knows your child as well as you do but don’t be fooled into believing that this means you know everything about them because if they are in school, you don’t. you might hold the largest block of knowledge but you don’t hold all the knowledge. The biggest area in which parents do not know their child’s behaviour is when they are mixing with large groups of people without a parent present, it stands to reason they cannot possibly know this, but children change dramatically when they are with large groups particularly of their peers-they become social beings who manage complex social relationships and standing in groups using all manner of techniques and understandings that parents have never seen.
In schools we are constantly confronted by parents insisting that their child could not possibly have done this or that, could not possibly have said this or that, is not capable of this or that behaviour. We regularly have to deal with parents, sometimes many of them, who come to school determined to battle for their child’s rights because they believe some fundamental wrong has taken place because their child has told them so. If I had a pound for every parent who had indignantly said to me “are you calling my child a liar?” I’d be writing this from a villa somewhere hot and sunny right now. I’m not implying that parents are wrong, they are not, they really do know their child very well, but all of us when we give an account tell our story from one viewpoint only – even when there may be many others to consider. Parents may know their children very well but children also know their parents very well and they know how to tell a story to get the reaction they want, they know how to minimise their own responsibility and they know what their parents will believe.
At this time of year many children are starting school for the 1st time and many of these are starting secondary school for the 1st time. This brave new world will both accelerate and accommodate the child’s transition into young adulthood and with it the inevitable slow transit away from the established parent-child intimacy of previous years. It’s hard for parents to let their child go, especially when they still see the moments of vulnerability, insecurity and neediness that children exhibit in a loving, caring home but they need to recognise that most children at 11 are ready to go into a bigger arena and to explore all the other aspects of self, many of which parents have never seen in their child. Many parents overcompensate for the growing distance in family relationships by making themselves as indispensable as possible (whilst blaming it all on their child for being so needy, lacking independence, or being disorganised) by making sure they are the one to get their child out of bed every morning, to get breakfast on the table, to do the laundry and pack their bags, to make sure they have their lunch money, letters, home work and everything else. I am often asked by parents how to manage a disorganised teenager, how to make them take responsibility for themselves bt there is only ever one answer-don’t do it for them any more. I understand why people do it and I understand why teenagers don’t but rather than trying to break a difficult and well entrenched cycle it’s better off not to start it in the 1st place! When they go to big school it is the perfect time to expect them to start taking more care of themselves by simply letting them do it. All over the world there are children managing families at 11, going to work at 11, caring for sick relatives at 11. Some of these children are in our society too and though I would never support such huge responsibility for a child I mention it simply to remind us all that children are capable of tremendous things when they need to be so remembering to take their homework really shouldn’t be such a big stretch for them. However its not that much fun and so they will never do it (and neither would I have that matter) if somebody else is there to take up the slack and do it for them.
It’s hard to let children grow away from us, it’s hard to allow them to have a life in which we have no part and to accept that there are elements of who they are that we no longer know but the job of the parent is to help a child grow into a responsible and capable adult who can manage their own lives and relationships effectively and if it hurts to let them go maybe we need to look at our own needs for support at facing such a major life change for ourselves. A parent never stops being a parent but a child does stop being a child.
Photo: Mark Godwin, The Guardian