These are the reflections of a parent who has raised three daughters, and a principal who has led two schools. I am sure there are psychologists who agree with me, and probably some that don’t, but I don’t claim to be an authority on such matters. At my schools I have always worked closely with professionals when working out how to assist an individual with an individual issue. Better to refer to a psychologist when responding to a particular child’s circumstances. These are general reflections on parenting and the creation of a tone in schooling.
Like almost every parent, my wife and I have discussed our views on raising our own children and educating all children many times.
We have found these three words very helpful.
We have found that children need to be secure in order to learn: in their homes and in their relationships. When children go on camp one of the first things they want to do is to see where they are sleeping. Further, some of the nervous energy that exists before meal times on camp is because they are wondering if they are going to enjoy the meal. Once they find their bed and see their plate – even if it doesn’t meet all of their hopes – they can begin to accept their lot. Children play an active part in developing their own security. Adults can assist them by ensuring their homes are safe and their classrooms are warm and welcoming. Once safe, they can start to learn.
And they need to find a place to be significant. It doesn’t have to involve public recognition – some children avoid this. I think they need an area of confidence. It might be in an obvious area like music or sport, or it could be in their capacity to help friends work out their difficulties or in keeping their belongings in good order. It might be in their ability to train their dog, or to assist in mundane chores. Of course it really helps if they feel someone notices them. The smile of a parent, and of a teacher is a powerful thing.
Children also need challenge. If they are just comfortably secure and significant, they might not stretch themselves. How important it is to learn to overcome obstacles, and to develop the confidence to do so without an adult present. This process takes years, but it is a key area for learning. Life’s bumps are important for the child’s growth. It is my experience that the parent who constantly rescues the child disempowers her. The child can work out a large number of situations if she is in good conversation with others. A little encouragement, some respectful adult time, and a a decision to trust go a long way.
Of course no one benefits from bullying. Targeted attempts to cause someone who is less powerful to feel pain are very destructive.
And yet, we can benefit from conflict. In conflict, the adversaries are roughly equal in influence, and have approximately equal capacity to cause each other some pain. Children can learn to negotiate what is important from what is not. They can develop empathy. Like one of the children in Judith Wright’s story ‘The Ant lion’, they can even develop a healthy disrespect for their own capacity to cause pain to others.
And it is unwise in my view to call conflict, bullying. It is my experience that almost all children come into conflict with their friends or associates at some point. Sometimes other children treat my children poorly, and sometimes my children treat others poorly. They usually ‘bump around’ and work it out. Parents who help their children to develop a conscience and a sense of compassion towards others can make these experiences into character-building moments. Yet, if this occasional conflict is labelled bullying by an over-protective parent, the power balance in the relationship shifts. A child who could have worked out the issue herself is suddenly viewed as someone who has little capacity to solve her own problems.
Parents need great wisdom here. They need to find out the facts when their child is hurting. No parent should leave his child in a situation where he is bullied. Yet we need not jump straight to the conclusion that it is bullying.
Academic challenge engages the child with learning. There is so much to know and we are all just tiny specks trying to understand how things work. After years and years of study I know so very little, yet I am challenged to keep on learning.
If there is challenge in the classroom, we learn to try, to strive. To rephrase C S Lewis: If learning was a race, it would matter not how many times we fell over, but it would matter that we kept on getting up and started running again.