No parent wants their child to grow up to be boorish or insensitive to the feelings of others. No parent wants their child to grow up to become a modern day Alf Garnett. No parent wants their child to grow up objectifying their peers or using sexually aggressive language to denigrate or intimidate those they profess to love.
We want our sons and daughters to be confident, compassionate and considerate. We want them to become constructive members of society who will enrich the lives of all whom they encounter.
Today’s children are growing up in an age when it is all too easy for them to access online content that is racist, misogynistic and violent. Andrew Tate is the talisman for such material but he is not a lone voice and there are plenty of young people who are seduced by a grossly distorted view of masculinity that ultimately promises nothing but isolation and misery. Of course, the following reflections are purposefully gender inclusive because the ability to cause hurt to others or become enthralled by damaging online content is universal. Consequently, our educational strategies must be inclusive and empowering rather than divisive or disenfranchising.
Whatever values we might hold at home, it is perfectly possible that our children are accessing online content that offers an entirely different view of how they should behave. Many teenagers will view pornography that is violent and degrading. It is inevitable that such content will shape their nascent understanding of what is permissible or desirable within the context of a sexual relationship. Exposure to such content often results in young people failing to discern the difference between a loving and healthy sexual relationship and an abusive relationship that is based upon subjugation and violence. This is not intended as a prudish or moralising polemic; it is a reflection upon working with young people for the best part of twenty years or more.
Few parents would disagree with the fact that our children are vulnerable to pernicious online content and yet we know that it is not realistic for us to wrap our children up in cotton wool. Furthermore, there is an obvious risk that we can catastrophize microaggressions to such an extent that children feel uncertain and/or insecure. Children will make mistakes and their actions will occasionally be inconsiderate to the feelings of their peers. Guidance, support and education are more effective than admonishment and punishment. This said, egregious acts of unkindness or cruelty should never be tolerated within any school community nor should they be dismissed as ‘banter’ – that catch-all word favoured by those who care little for the attritional impact of unkindness.
As parents we have a tendency to mitigate and equivocate when confronted with disappointing revelations about our children; especially when it is delivered by a third party. Our loving instinct is to protect and qualify. We tend to believe the best of our own and apportion blame to others. Of course, our children are never the ‘ringleaders’ though we might grudgingly concede that they have been led astray by someone else’s deviant son or daughter. Add into the mix the fact that, as Helen Pikve (Head of Magdalen College School) observes, children lie for the simple reason that they do not want to get into trouble. This is hardly a revelation but not all parents admit that their own child might resort to behaviour that is as pragmatic as it is duplicitous. We were not saints growing up so it is pretty unreasonable for us to expect our children to be faultless angels. As parents, we should be prepared to challenge the narratives presented by our children, not necessarily because they are untrue, but because they may well be partial and lacking in the sort of perspective that experience of life brings to bear.
Accepting responsibility can be painful because we are scared that we have failed or are failing in the role that we place most value on in our lives. Personally, I feel that I fail on many occasions. We are our own harshest critics and we blame ourselves when our children behave in a way that seems like a two-fingered riposte to the love that we have poured into their early years. Shock and disappointment can harden and sour us. We tend to seek affirmation in others and adopt the role of a seasoned defence attorney hellbent upon pointing out potential deficiencies in structures, policies and practice. Sometimes, we blame a specific member of staff or call into question the true impact of our child’s words. It is tempting to trust chatter on a WhatsApp group more than a careful and thorough investigation conducted within School. The digital echo chamber may well provide the reassurance that we seek.
The good news is that our children are endlessly reflective and tend to be truly remorseful when they do get it wrong. They might make mistakes but they do want to get it right and they do want us to be proud of them. Their actions often arise from a bravado that is attributable to fear or insecurity.
We are all work in progress and as parents we should be endlessly forgiving and endlessly loving. This does not mean refusing to accept unpalatable truths; it means making sure that our children know that we love them and that we will love them for an eternity. Our children deserve endless reassurance. Many of us grew up in a slightly less demonstrative age and so it is quite understandable that we might underplay the importance of repeating three simple words: ‘I love you’.
So where does this leave us? How do we counter the pernicious influence of a digital world beyond our control? Schools and parents need to work together to support young people. Children need consistency and they deserve to grow up within a context where the ethos and values of their schools are complemented and supported by the example that they are set by us parents at home. That does not mean that there should not be room for a diversity of opinions. Challenge and debate is healthy and schools will often get things wrong. The wise pastoral leader will learn from parents and adapt and evolve their practice throughout their careers. Creative tension may well exist between home and school; home might be more traditional and School might promote more progressive values or vice versa. Dynamic communities embrace a wealth of perspectives and exploring differences is more useful than seeking prescriptiveness or uniformity. However, denial or defensiveness rarely leads to a positive outcome.
It is a simple truth that you get the School community that you deserve. I am incredibly proud of our children and the reputation that our community has for thoughtfulness, kindness and compassion. I am proud of my colleagues and the commitment that they show towards modelling the values that we want to become manifest in our children. We might have heated debates about effective assessment or curriculum issues but we are absolutely united in our shared commitment to ensuring that all within our community feel valued and secure.
We need to nurture the healthy dialogue that exists between School and home. We treasure all the informal opportunities that we have to meet with parents. We ask a lot in terms of parental engagement precisely because we know that strong relationships between home and school enable our children to flourish. Within the context of a positive framework, we are usually successful at addressing issues as and when they arise. If the shutters come down and parents disengage, then it can be very difficult to reach that positive outcome that we all desire.
Relationships require a good degree of investment and a willingness to listen. Occasionally, we all have to adjust our thinking and recognise that our children are growing up in a world that is very different to the one we experienced ourselves. It is a world that is full of potential pitfalls but it is also a world of endless opportunity.
Headmaster of Rossall School