One of the more irritating questions that occasionally gets fired my way is ‘Do you have children of your own?’ It irritates me because it is usually asked as a rhetorical question; and what’s more annoying than a rhetorical question? It is normally asked by a parent who is, at the time, aggrieved by something that I have done. To be more specific, they are aggrieved because I have made a decision that they disagree with. To be even more specific, they are aggrieved because I have made a decision that impacts on their child, in what they perceive to be a negative way, and they really don’t agree with it. And, at this point, the only logical conclusion they can come up with for me making this decision is that I am childless tyrant.
I have a rather primal reaction to being asked the question in the first place as I simply loathe the loaded and judgemental nature of it. I find the very idea that I may somehow not be a complete human being because I have not fathered a child rather insulting – the concept that, as a non-parent, I am bereft of empathy, compassion or understanding. I mean, I’ve never had my genitalia cut off with a knife; does that automatically mean I am a fan of female genital mutilation? Of course not; the very notion is absurd. And yet my professionalism can be called into question because no one calls me ‘Daddy’.
It is, in my opinion, a cheap shot. Not to mention impertinent. What business is it of anyone else’s anyhow? I have brandished my ‘right to privacy’ card several times on this matter. I remember one parent in particular, who seemed desperate to know in order to prove their point, just wouldn’t let it go. I was taken aback by the ferocity with which they demanded to know the precise number of immediate family members I had waiting for me back home. In the end I had to point out to her that maybe I wouldn’t be comfortable telling a relative stranger some of the possible answers: I have children, I don’t have children, I can’t have children, I had children…
What also irritates me is that it is a difficult question to answer in the negative without sounding exactly like the person they suspect you to be. It’s like telling someone, on the cusp of an argument, that you’re not getting annoyed – nigh on impossible to sound anything else but slightly, if not very, annoyed. As soon as you balk at answering or come right out and say no, a look comes over them as if to say ‘well that explains it’. At once, you justify their prejudice and there’s no going back – I mean, I’m a pretty petty guy but even I won’t start a family just to win an argument. No, as soon as you’ve given the game away they exit up on their high horse across the moral high ground, never to return. And that irritates me.
It is irritating because I’ve never lost an interview for a job because I didn’t have kids. That’s never been part of the recruitment process. I’ve never finished day one of the process, only to receive an evening phone call from the chair of governors not inviting me back for the second day, due to my lack of child rearing experience. ‘The other candidate not only had more experience of senior leadership, but they’ve spawned more children, sorry.’ I’ve never had to enter appraisal negotiations where the governors agreed to a pay-rise and a better car-parking space as long as I deliver improved Key Stage 2 results and a baby in less than a year. It’s never happened, so why is it an issue?
As I said at the beginning, this question is usually asked by a parent when they are feeling less than deferential towards me. It is usually following an assumption that I have made a bad decision because I’m not only childless, but also an ogre. Now I understand that a parent takes things personally, especially if their child is on the receiving end of ‘whatever it is they’re unhappy about’, but the knee-jerk reaction to then demonise the educators is frustrating to say the least. Is it so out of the realms of possibility that an unpopular decision has actually been a difficult decision to make? Is it impossible to fathom that I have had to take into account the needs and situation of other pupils in order to decide which would be the most appropriate course of action to take? Or, because you don’t like my decision, is it actually easier to conclude that I am a childless, incompetent and cruel Victorian disciplinarian?
I suppose it is human nature that during difficult or emotive times some people find it hard to look at the bigger picture. This is one of the more challenging aspects of headship: having to make and communicate decisions that are difficult but necessary, appear transparent despite the numerous sensitivities that may be at play and act fairly even when this results in differing consequences for those involved. To do so with true compassion for all parties can cause you to appear dispassionate to those that oppose you. This is where you must be guided by your sense of humanity and professionalism rather than any paternal instincts you have, and it is here where I doff my cap to those leaders who are parents…according to those angry mums and dads demanding to look at the family snapshots that they suspect are not hidden in my wallet, your job must be even harder than mine.