Personal Development

Letting them grow into Big School!

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

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Life on the Fringes

I was recently working with the parents of a 13-year-old girl who described their daughter as a ‘fringe dweller’ and I was immediately struck by the term,  I’d even go so far as to say I felt it a very accurate description of myself so I feel I know a little about fringe dwellers.

Over the years I have worked with many children and young adults who could be described as fringe dwellers by others for any number of reasons but the key characteristic is that they are individuals who don’t run with the pack either because they don’t want to or because the pack won’t have them, so we have fringe  dwellers who inhabit the margins because they choose it and we have others who are sadly  hanging about in the fringes wishing they knew how to be in the thick of it. Whether it matters or not depends on which of the two categories a child falls into – the self elected  FD all the outcast FD.

What is noticeable about all fringe dwelling children is that they probably lack the social skills to mix easily and well with their peers  but some feel themselves inadequate because of this and others think the peer group behaves in a ridiculous and pointless way-although both probably find the behaviour of their peers quite mystifying at times particularly their obsessions and rituals.

One of the hardest things about growing up is the conflict between wanting to fit in and wanting to be seen as an individual and this conflict still exists in the fringe dwelling teen but many will have already given up the  desire to fit in  because they have learnt that to do so they may have to sacrifice some of the elements of their individuality that they value.   There is often also an element of control in the fringe dweller,  if they can’t be the alpha of a group they have little interest in being part of the group. Being  easily recognized as an individual and being noticed and praised happens mostly  to those at the centre of a group or those on the outside.

The second group of  fringe dwellers  are the ones who are excluded from groups against their wishes and may suffer a great deal  by this exclusion. They may often be children who are on the receiving end of bullying or unkindness and may feel desperate to be part of the group that is dishing out their torture.  For parents of these children it must be heartbreaking to see their child trying again and again to make friends with the very people who are responsible for their unhappiness in the first place and all those conversations about ‘why would you want to be friends with this person anyway’ go nowhere.

So how can we help the fringe dweller? The self selected FD  can be integrated into a group of individuals rather like themselves  with some common interest. I remember joining a group of outcast hippy types when I was 14 who wrote and performed poetry, which was hardly mainstream for 14-year-olds  even in the late 60s. We were a group of odd bods but we found some enjoyment in being with other nonconformist people  and talking about goodness knows what but definitely not pop music or nail varnish. Mind you I didn’t last long, the idea of writing alternative poetry was more apealling than the actuality.

Poetry One - Circa 1968

The unwilling FD  also needs to find somewhere to belong and that may mean a whole new social scene away from their usual peer group as well as some help with how to get along with others rather than trying to constantly impress them with how wonderful or terrible their life is, their family is, their secrets are. The one thing that all fringe dwellers have in common is that they probably need some help with their social skills, simply understanding how to have conversations or how to meet new people can be completely beyond them although knowing doesn’t necessarily mean being able to put into action. I firmly believe that most of the exceptional people that we know or hear about are  fringe dwellers – but alas so are most of the infamous!

And in case you’re wondering – I’m the one on the floor.

Aspiration and Inspiration

It is such a shame that the new year  so frequently starts with grey wet days in Britain and when it should start with bright blue sunny days full of hope and excitement so is it any wonder that all those good intentions fall by the wayside so quickly? There’s nothing like a flat grey sky to encourage an abundance of comfort habits and discourage all that exercise, fresh air and salads!

Like most new years this one started for me with staff training in a school, this year it was a primary school and I was running a training session on PSHE with a particular emphasis on sex and relationships education. One of the great challenges with personal, social, health education (PSHE) is that simply having knowledge does not change behaviour-as we know only too well with issues such as smoking or alcohol consumption, everyone knows the dangers and risks but it does not  necessarily change the choices that people make.  For educators such as teachers or parents this can  be disheartening as we would all like to believe that simply knowing what is good or bad will change a child or young person’s behaviour. We all know it does not work for us, our resolutions are all based on things we know about health and well-being in relation to ourselves and yet in no time at all most of us (unless we’ve taken the plunge and signed on the dotted line for that gym membership) have begun to lose focus and interest in all those things we promised ourselves we would change.

There are things that do make a difference however and these are the things we need to be encouraging in children and young people  from an early age in our conversations, attitude and of course by demonstrating in how we live our lives. One of the biggest inspirations for positive choice is having a range of aspirations-things to look forward to, to desire, to work towards in life however big or small.

Now when I mentioned this to teachers at the beginning of term, two members of the group made comments that have stayed with me. The first was that there is evidence to show that having overly high aspiration can cause stress in young people and the second was that when asked  what they want to be when they are older most children today  simply say they want to be famous!  Both of these I’m sure are true although I haven’t checked  any research or statistics to back this up, certainly I would say from my own experience working with a range of children and young people there are some who feel enormously pressurised to achieve in exams or tests and  almost everyone wants to be a celebrity  without having any specific direction or talent in mind.

One of the areas in which I work still has the 11+ and the number of year 6 children who have tutors or attend Saturday schools is quite shocking and represents to me the kind of aspiration I deplore. I’m all for helping children to do the best they can but any form of hot-housing is bound to encourage children to feel overly attached to results as a form of self validation.’ I am as good as my scores’  rather than ‘ I am a unique and special person, I make mistakes sometimes but I learn from them’.  I know which viewpoint I think is healthier and more conducive to a well rounded and satisfying life, but I also know that not everyone would agree with me and  that this is a matter of opinion. Like most things a little balance is required.

To me aspiration is not about what you want to be but rather how you want your life to be  and it is this area that I feel we’d do little to help children with. We are stuck in the old 1950s way of looking at the future as a career choice and I am sure Ladybird  or someone similar use to have a book about jobs and careers for children that listed Nurse, Doctor,Postman,Teacher, Pilot and probably something like a Baker ans all with clearly defined gender specifications. Somewhere along the line we are still presenting this view of the future to children whilst the media is presenting a more glamorous option of becoming rich and famous for doing absolutely nothing  like the Big Brother contestants or the failed auditionees on X factor.  To a child or young person the glamorous, easy, party lifestyle of the  chosen few seems far more interesting  than being a Postman and who can blame them? (No offence to Posties or the work they do intended!)

True aspirations are not dreams they are goals. Talking to children about places they would like to see, countries they would like to travel to, the home they would like to have, animals they would like to see in the wild,  types of car they would like to see driving down the street,  hobbies and interests they might like to pursue when older, types of building they would like to see-whatever they are interested in.  If they love football  then it may not be possible to become a professional footballer (although for some of course it is)  but attending a world cup final one day is an aspiration to work towards as may be visiting every Premier league  home ground to watch a match. By having such aspirations young people are encouraged to see the future as something they have some control over and if they have enough  compelling and inspiring aspirations they will be unlikely to do anything that will seriously jeopardise or hamper their chances of making them come true, as long as they have the knowledge and understanding to avoid the pitfalls.

Becoming a world famous pop star happens to only a few people but there are millions of people worldwide who are involved in the pop industry, from media executives to sales staff in high street media  shops. If a child longs to be part of the world of pop help them to see that anyone can be if they make choices and take the most useful steps towards their goals and although they may not become a star themself  there are  any number of roles within the industry from accounts to hairstyling, from management to admin,  from album cover design to chauffeuring. Almost any area of skill can be utilised if an individual takes the right steps to get the results they want.

If a child loves playing games on their computer console encourage them to think of the games they might like to invent one day  or real life applications for the skills and interests they are developing.  not that true aspirations should be around career alone but rather to do with adventures and achievements in life, careers should be built around what inspires us and in this day and age many careers don’t have simple labels any more as they are more to do with evolving and developing as an individual than with  choosing a role and sticking with it. Most of the people I admire in my life did not set out to do what they are now doing, they went with the flow and recognized opportunities as they arose in line with their own talents and interests. Encouraging children to do the same is the best we can do for them.

Happy New Year.

CHILD
© Tatyana Okhitina | Dreamstime.com

What to be when I grow up

When I was small I wanted to be a farmer because I loved my farm set and would play happily day in and day out, lost in my own world. I dreamt of a giant version where the animals were just as well behaved and money and finance didn’t enter the equation at all. A little later, as most animal loving girls of my generation did, I wanted to be a vet. I had no idea what this meant as reality TV had yet to be invented and saw it as an extension of my farm idea only with more martrydom and personal sacrifice as I tended the sick of the animal world. (well the cute ones anyway – some things never change!)
By the time I hit secondary school I had modified my ambitions to
being a nuclear physicist. I had no idea what this entailed but it sounded so cool (I believe we said neat back then) and it was an impressive ambition to spout especially as a girl in a budding feminist world.
The bad and sad part of it all was that this ambition coincided with having to choose my options at school so I chose to study Physics and Chemistry, neither of which I had any interest or aptitude in and both of which had hardly any girls. I think there were only 2 of us in Chemistry though I could be wrong. I did poorly at both and was undoubtedly a nuisance and a disrupting influence to my teachers and classmates although I do have some issue about how I was taught too and the very little effort that was expended to help me engage but I expect I was ghastly.
I wonder how different my life would have been if I had grown up with a different set of aspirations? ones that were about who I was and not what I wanted to be? I wonder also what life might have been like if I had grown up with a different understanding of the world as a place where anyone with courage and skill can become or do or achieve almost anything eventually rather than a world where you had a job and someone paid you to do it week in and week out, and if you were lucky you got a ‘good’ job in education or medicine or banking.
Today the world of work has changed dramatically and those young people looking for a career or job may well be looking for a very long time. The ones that have few qualifications are going to need to rely on the goodwill of family and friends if they are ever to get on and the ‘career’ option of early motherhood will appeal to more and more young women as work becomes harder to find.
Those young people who have been raised to understand that they are the source of their opportunities and options rather than the state or an employer will do well in a climate where bold action and courage count for so much.
And yet Personal, Social and Health Education remains a non compulsory part of the National Curriculum and parents who have poor life skills or workskills are raising another generation like themselves, mostly good people with sound morals and belief systems but little expertise in navigating the uncharted waters of life outside an organization or institution.
So what does your child want to be when they grow up and how do they think they will get there? And how can you help them to develop into a successful young adult? As for me I’m still waiting to find my perfect niche and I’m beginning to think there just might not be one!

IN THE TEST TUBE#3
© Mrloz | Dreamstime.com