June 19, 2024

Parenting And Childhood In Crisis


In our local group of secondary schools over 500 students qualify for special consideration, individual arrangements, someone to read for them, or a scribe in exams. They get rest breaks, extra time, separate rooms room in this summer’s public examinations. It seems kids have more problems and are needier in 2018 than last year and much more so than a decade ago.

In 2018, nationally, more children have special needs, more are home educated and more are expelled from their schools.

We have children who don’t eat, others who can’t sleep, a number self -harm, and others report that they have dark thoughts and are anxious, depressed and suicidal. This is terrible and I don’t think it’s just a case of today’s schools asking them how they feel.

I read this today: “He is unable to understand or manage his extreme emotions, sees himself only in negatives and is becoming increasingly isolated and distressed.”

We have parents who don’t know how to support, help or bring up their children in a society where childhood is sentimentalised, parents feel guilty and the fantasy world of social media creates a warped view of family life.

As parents, many but by no means all, demand much from ourselves perhaps too much and we don’t always get it right.

This is almost certainly the most controversial of my 49 published blogs. Most are read by other headteachers and teachers and sometimes one or two readers promise never to talk to me ever again. Being anti faith school gets the catholics going and mention of selection in comprehensive schools annoys a few headteachers to the extent they will not read a word I write. I expect some angry parents among the 1,000 or so who will read this monologue. I bet I’m on Radio 3 Counties again and misquoted by the atrociously poor scribes on The Hertfordshire Mercury.


I am head of an outstanding inclusive school and parents overwhelmed Ofsted with their support for what we do. The vast majority of our parents are wonderful supporters of their kids and do everything to help them do well in school and life.  They love their kids and help them develop a morality of honesty, effort, decency, care for others and to understand right and wrong. But I think parenting is in crisis.

I was on a hot,  crowded train from Cornwall to London, a little frustrated because I couldn’t get the score from the Spurs-Arsenal game. A 5 year old kept asking silly questions, making odd noises and generally being a pain. His dad kept saying things like, “Why are you doing that, Popett?” and, “I don’t think you should do that, Popett.” For 200 miles we listened to Popett until, just short of London, his mum joined the discussion with, “Stop it!” and he did.

Despite the ex-headteacher from Presdales having called me poppet once,  I left that train with an intense dislike of the word and always precede it with “Bloody!”

The 5 year old will grow up.

Last week, 12 year old Drew stole his mum’s credit card, flew to Bali, booked into a good hotel, hired a motorbike and sent his friends photos of himself boozing in the swimming pool. Mum has been very upset that people have been blaming her; “He doesn’t like being told no.”

It’s OK to say, “No”

Children push boundaries. Rules and expectations set by parents and teachers have this in common. If a teacher gives their class a 5 minute break some kids come back 10 minutes later; if parents set a 10 pm deadline many children will test this. So, if he comes in at 10.10 make the next deadline 9.50.

There was some midnight trouble at last year’s Ware Music Day and I asked a 13 year old if he’d been involved. “I don’t know. Where was I at midnight on Saturday, mum?” To which his very intelligent, well dressed supportive mum replied, “I don’t know; where were you?”

More advice: Know where your kids are.

A very nice middle class man, with his own business, asked if we could put on weekend, evening activities at the school because his son was out late, getting in trouble and in with the wrong crowd, and, “I can’t ground him.”

In 1966 a neighbour said that I’d fallen in with a bad crowd to which my mum replied, “My Dennis is a bad crowd.”

The reality our children live in is a different place.

Here’s where we might go wrong:

Often, both parents work hard or there’s only one parent at home and she works hard so that the kids are fed, clothed and have the things that other kids have. At 4.00 pm boys go home and most plug into Fortnite in their bedroom until it’s time to go to bed. Girls pursue their Instagram, Snap Chat and other social media in their bedroom. The parents have worked hard and the fridge is well stocked. The kids are quiet and they seem happy. They don’t challenge, and they go to sleep some time, and the police don’t call. We buy them things for their bedroom, costing thousands: an Xbox, and iPhone, a laptop and a TV, with Sky, BT and Netflix subscriptions.

17 year old Billy had 21 kills on Fortnite by 5.00 am last Wednesday and struggled to stay awake in his Economics lesson.  Parents should know: you can’t save Fortnite, you play until you exit.

If school reports suggest things are going wrong, perhaps homework isn’t being done and then parents need to set times for homework, times for the other stuff and times for sleep. This isn’t always easy once patterns of behaviour are established but, we are the parents and they need to do as we say.

We feel guilty when things go wrong. We need set boundaries and then enforce them with rewards and short term sanctions.

I listened as a  teacher phoned two parents to issue detentions for missed GCSE work. The first mother talked for 10 minutes about how he didn’t do the work because the teacher didn’t praise him enough. The second parent said, “He’ll be there.”

I watched as another parent blamed her son’s lack of homework on the teacher having not selected him to play in a match even though he didn’t turn up to a single practice.

I was asked to rescind my praise for the way her son handled a possible confrontation with a teacher because it was all the teacher’s fault. A dad watched CCTV of his son beating another boy and claimed the victim was the aggressor because he raised his hands as he was being hit. I told a mother that the police were asking about her son and had to write a letter of apology when the police said they weren’t. A well trusted parent watched a video of his son punch a boy 30 times and called it “banter.”

Take your pick, but two of these went to prison – one for murder – and two of the other parents now want us to help with “mental health” problems because their kids are unco-operative and miserable.

When teachers telephone to say things are going a little astray at school parents need to ask themselves  why would the school be lying,? Why would the school be picking on my kid? Perhaps my child has done something wrong. It’s not the end of the world but she was late or she didn’t do her homework or she did misbehave. Can’t you just let us get on with it?

Teachers should not patronise but we should ask the parent to trust us whilst  we always remember their child is the most important thing, person and concept to them in the world ever, ever.

I can’t count the number of times a parent has recounted minute by minute what was said in a classroom she hadn’t been in and the new phrase, “My son/daughter would never lie to me” is  a modern interpretation of childhood.  I was perplexed by the parents who swore blind that their kid would never take drugs even though we have provided the boy with the drugs counselling he requested.

I have to admit that I often lied to try and get out of trouble as a child – I must have been a very bad boy.

During the last 40 years I have taught 5 murderers attended 8 terrible teenage funerals, I  taught children with lousy home lives, violent or abusive relatives, living with poverty and fecklessness, I have been stalked slandered and libelled, wrongly accused, threatened, occasionally sworn at and had a truly wonderful time helping young people learn about themselves and the world.

I’ve been in schools with many thousands of ordinary kids who have been very decent people with or without brilliant qualifications. Mainly their families were not well off, were struggling or just about not managing. It is not often the poorest that indulge children.

Teachers are trying to do something incredibly important, joyous and rewarding and sometimes we have helped end the trap of poverty, deprivation and hopelessness. I’ve met people I once taught and they are bankers, lawyers, plumbers, doctors, bakers, electicians, happy fathers and mothers, mountain climbers and even a couple who were better snooker players than me.

Generally, teachers teach 200 kids each week and for them to hate a particular student is frankly, unrealistic. Teachers do not lie awake hating children. Teachers are rarely perfect and even rarer are they child haters.

Do we notice that children rarely talk with other children? They text rather than speak. Internet chat is brief, abbreviated, MTV slang. Good luck if you try to translate Instagram comments.

The world of social media puts our children in a different reality where pseudo adult conversations take place and children do not talk with other children as children. 13 year old girls are transfixed by the pouting, materialist excess, sexualisation and superficiality typified by Kardashians. None of us would want our daughters to be pursuing the lifestyles proclaimed in Geordie Shore, Ex on the Beach and Made in Chelsea but 8 year olds are admiring this stuff.

We should monitor what our kids watch – some programmes are on after 9 pm for a reason. How  many 12 year olds play the ultra-violent “Call of Duty?”

Social media is not the source of anomie in society.  Without a platform to show people how nice our dinner looks, how much better I am than you because here’s a picture of me in Barbados we’d have to talk to our friends about things. We have probably all seen post demands such as, “Like this or I am unfriending you.”  My granddaughter had 600 friends on her Instagram account, before she sat down with her mum and filtered. The more friends I have, the more likes I have, the more popular I must be and my self-esteem lives by the internet.

The perils of bullying on social media are well known and schools do lots of work on this. One woman told me that she was a terrible bully at school, “I was horrible to you. But when you went home I had to leave you alone. Today you can bully 24-7.” We have to teach kids to see that the bully is bad, not someone to get in with or copy and that it really is OK to tell someone about bullying. If only because they are saving other kids from the bully.

Younger children use the internet to be more aware, scared and in need of talk than ever. I cam across this quote: ”Of course we’re depressed. You destroyed the economy for us, the earth is literally dying, we are going to work until we die, and on top of that the Nazis are back.”

If we give parenting a try and talk with other parents as well , we will find that many 15 year olds get “depressed” that most of us get “anxious” before exams and that we all worried about our physical appearance, being popular and not having a girlfriend/boyfriend. It is OK to say, “I hate you,” “You’re mean,” and “Other parents let their kids …” That’s all part of the rules of parent child negotiations and saying, “Do as you’re told” is OK.

Exams are stressful and there are too many of them. Kids are particularly anxious if they haven’t done as much revision as they should. It’s not a mental health problem to feel anxious about tests. The queue for CAMHs is enormous. I wonder how many kids in need of help are not yet seen because half the 6th form students in Hertford and Ware got in first?

Labels, now there’s a thing.

I remember a woman on the radio responding to her 10 year old’s atrocious abuse of his neighbourhood and all the people in it: foul language, violence, theft, vandalism, burglary. “What people don’t know, she asserted, “Is that my boy has ADHD.” And that makes it OK

We beat ourselves up as parents but for some, how nice it is to have a label that says, “It’s not my fault.”

You can get a private assessment, pay them the money and be told your child has mild autism (like most of us) dyslexic tendencies or Opposition Defiant Disorder (and yes they do mean ODD). You  still have to talk to and work with your child.  The label does not abrogate responsibility.

Worries about sexual identity are not new and it is wonderful that modern media has let people see that we are all “normal,” that identity concerns are valid and that there are various routes to fulfilment. I get a bit fed up when being “trans” means dying my hair, dressing like half-hearted goths, getting drunk and being unable to attend school; the wannabee pretend ones getting in the way of young people who need and want and seek help and change.

Oh, and by the way, kids who stay in bed for 12 hours are bound to be tired and the longer you let them stay in bed the more ill and housebound they will become. And, while I’m on a roll. If you drop your kids at Asda for breakfast we confiscate energy drinks.

Although this may be on the controversial side of my blogs, I am confident I still have a job. 10 years ago my chair of governors and I locked his son in a classroom on a Saturday for about 5 hours so he could, finally, finish his science coursework. We gave him food and drink every so often and he told us, “It’s not fair.” The boy won a national basketball title, earned a university degree, works for a living and loves his dad.

Parents can take away their children’s mobile phones for a bit, turn off the Xbox for a while, set boundaries which they enforce with rewards and sanctions and started talking with their kids like we’re the  adults and they are children. The queue for counselling services would shrink so that the very needy are seen; fewer teacher-parent confrontations are in the way of good teaching and learning and children are playing in the park.

Let kids be kids: play out, get minor hurts without A&E let them be naughty, and then corrected, let them tell fibs that you can see through so that now they think you’re omniscient; take them to the  zoo, McDonalds , chat about their schooling, praise their achievements, help them become resilient, happy people who can suffer the slings and arrows of a materialist society; show them you care about other people (because you do) and that your friends are important to you because of what they’re like rather than what they possess.

I wonder what my emails will look like now?

Dennis O’Sullivan

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