On making deliberate choices

There are a billion ways to parent. I don’t presume to be able to say much to any parent. But I can note a few brief observations. As a principal I do meet many thousands of parents. And I admire much of their ‘work’.

My wife Susan reminded me today of a book we read together when our first daughter was born.

It was called ‘Raising Kids on Purpose’.

She said: ‘I can’t remember too much of what was in the book, but I think all I really needed to know was in the title.’

Both as a father and a principal I agree wholeheartedly with her. Parenting and educating are both deliberate acts. Thousands and thousands of deliberate acts. It is my experience that effective parents and teachers are those that have the capacity to continually make considered choices.

From age zero to age I don’t know what.

One of the privileges of being a principal is that I get to meet many very effective parents. I meet people who choose to enjoy their children’s company, who invest in discussions about life’s big questions with them, and who savour time introducing their children to this astonishing world.

And they are parents who aren’t driven by anxiety. ‘Fear,’ said the members of the religious order in the Herbert novel, DUNE, ‘is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that causes total obliteration.’ Or, in the words of Peter, Jesus’ disciple, ‘Perfect love will cast out fear.’ In my experience, fear pushes people to make poorly thought through decisions. It was fear of electoral loss that drove the power brokers of the Labor Party to ungraciously remove Kevin Rudd. It was more fear that put him back in power. Commentator Paul Kelly notes the panic in the ranks. He describes the Party as ‘weak, panicked and faithless.’

In my experience the effective parent is habitually not ‘weak, panicked and faithless’. She or he is considered and purposeful. Yes, they are reflective, willing to apologise for errors and to change a poor decision. Yet they have thought about what they are trying to do in their parenting and they trust in their long-term approach to parenting even as they experience difficult choices. And they remain faithful to their child and their values. They resist the temptation to depict themselves as a victim of either their child’s choices or the wider environment. They are always looking for options. The child’s choices belong to the child: their choices belong to them.

Parenting is a long term commitment. Errors are redeemable. There is always an option.

And they choose their words carefully.

And they are not slaves to things that are less than themselves: alcohol, money…

I write this short note as a recognition of the wonderful skills that many parents have. Our society is all the richer because of their investment of time and care.




Thank you Mr Black

In Year 7 I had two English teachers. One took my class for my regular lessons and the other had us once a fortnight for ‘Reading’. Mr Black.

Mr Black had us rule up a 48 page Olympic Stripe exercise book with the headings: ‘Number’, ‘Author’, ‘Title’, ‘Genre’ and ‘Mark /10’. In the back we listed the ‘Book of the Year’ and ‘The most influential authors’.

In Year 6 I had read one book. In Year 7 I read 34. I still have the exercise book and I still, as a fifty-two year old, keep within it an updated list of every book I read. 

Mr Black reinvigorated my reading. My mother had read extensively to me as a child, but when I was in later primary school books were seen as the pariah gifts. Three years later I was asking for them for every birthday and Christmas.

One effective way to describe a good education is to say that it consists of ‘three good teachers in a row’, that is, for three consecutive years to have teachers who know and care for their students, know their subjects, differentiate the curriculum and connect it to the real world. 

Many teachers, myself included, would also add that it is important to be reflective. This little exercise book enables me to look back over my life and to remember the influences on me. I can see the pattern of my reading and thinking. And, for me, it gave my reading a discipline. When there were other distractions, I kept on reading.

Mr Black gave me an excellent education in reading in just one lesson per fortnight.

When I moved to Zimbabwe and entered my classroom for the first time, I found three words left by my predecessor on the blackboard: Read and Think.

Now, twenty years later, in an era of ipads and interactive whiteboards, one might think that education has new priorities. There are many new stimulations and these are mostly helpful, but the basis of an education in the humanities is still read and think.

So thank you Mr Black.