They fill you with the faults they had…
Philip Larkin was right. How many times have I heard teachers lament the negative impact some parents have on their children? Teaching would be easy, if it weren’t for the parents has been a commonly expressed mantra across many schools up and down the country.
I’ve worked in ‘challenging’ schools within ‘tough’ areas of the city. I have, as have many teachers, done my very best to support children from struggling families. Families who live their lives as victims of chaos. The chaos that comes with living alongside poverty, addiction, abuse, dysfunction and fear. This is where, as a teacher, you are motivated by equity and a desire to restore safety to the lives of powerless children. It starts with how you work with their parents. Informally or through the ‘system’. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the parents can see the light and are desperate to get closer to it; sometimes though, they appear to be content in the dark. In these cases, you will sometimes walk away, after a long day at work, shaking your head muttering ‘What chance has the kid got with parents like that!’
Don’t judge a teacher for thinking this. It’s a private thought – a momentary exclamation of frustration – that will allow them to come back to work the next day refreshed and ready to support without judgement or prejudice. Whether you agree or not, with the reality that schools are now expected to take on more than their fair share of society’s burden, you cannot take on this responsibility if you don’t, at some level, care. Of course, you care for the child but you must also extend that care to the parents. The ones that, to a tabloid reader, are the problem. They are not ‘the’ problem; they are problematic. Empathy, although difficult to maintain at all times, is key if you’re going to keep the window of chance open and maybe make a difference to the child. For these children are not just victims of their parents’ faults. They are victims of circumstance and they are worth fighting for.
They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra, just for you.
Do you remember David Laws? He once promoted ‘sharp elbowed middle-class parents’ who would fight for their children’s interests. He said that every parent should be like this. Now, whereas I’m not suggesting Laws meant that every parent should be a self-centred prig, I would argue that there is a growing parental body who have sharpened their elbows to samurai levels. Parents who have mistakenly confused ‘being aspirational for their child’ with bestowing their child with godlike status and expecting everyone else to do the same. Parents for whom social decorum and basic etiquette are things that they have neither the time nor inclination to pass onto their children. Parents who would happily take their local primary school to the court of human rights if it meant being able to get their way.
Their children are victims of middle-class parenting gone awry: where 21st century commodities have spawned an unrealistic sense of entitlement. They have absorbed the promises of the modern bourgeois lifestyle (through social media, advertising and ever-advancing technology) and applied them to the world of parenting. Like a hungover Pinterest binge, this form of parenting is immersed in the modern sensibilities of instant gratification, unsustainable indulgence and a lack of responsibility. For these kids, childhood has been replaced by a set of whims that must be met, insular demands that must be granted. A twisted version of growth-mindset where the only thing that is allowed to grow is the ego of the individual.
This is the contactless cohort. Children who believe that the world should be at their fingertips just because they want it. Parents who abandon practicalities when it comes to what they think others should be providing for their children. Children who believe that they have all the rights but none of the responsibility. Parents who tut at the mum in the supermarket for allowing their toddler to eat the chocolate before paying for it, whilst their own seven-year-old sits in the car updating their snapchat profile. These families may spend all their time taking selfies, but they are all too heavy-handed with the filters to be able to see their true image.
I believe that these children are becoming increasingly vulnerable to life’s realities. They have become blinded to its dangers by their parents’ misguided priorities. These poor kids delude themselves that they invincible. They are impervious to guidance and yet often crumble in the face of criticism. They imagine themselves to be cynical and all-knowing when in fact they have merely been over-exposed. You could say that they have grown up too-fast but it would be truer to say they have grown up too artificially. They haven’t so much missed their childhood as grown up thinking they were always too big for it. What do you expect though, when you’ve been raised by sharpened elbows?
Man hands on misery to man…
There is some scepticism around the growth of mental health concerns in schools. Lines have been blurred between mental health issues and an expectation that children must have the emotional competency of Buddah. Mindfulness and growth mindset have been offered to the teaching establishment as silver bullets against children’s unhappiness and apathy. The contactless cohort of parents fully support this concept and are only too happy to pass responsibility onto schools. We’ll pass on the misery, you deliver the cure.
And, here’s the rub: their inability to reflect on their parental choices really is creating a new wave of mental health concerns. Their child’s inability to cope, when the real world beats their augmented reality into submission, is something teachers are having to grapple with every day. However, the parents only demand is that we combat their child’s emotional fragility, they are less interested in us addressing the cause of it. We are expected to build resilience whilst never being allowed to reframe their sense of self-entitlement.
And so, it becomes a vicious circle. Except, instead of being victims trapped in a cycle of circumstantial chaos, this contactless cohort are victims of their parents’ boundless expectations. They are caught between an unshakeable belief that they are entitled and an inability to measure perspective: all they have heard since they were very young is ‘whatever you want, now!’
I am deeply worried about what the future holds for these children. We know, from statistical evidence, what the future may be like for many children who, by our current measures, are disadvantaged and vulnerable. But, for the contactless cohort, we will be entering uncharted waters as they enter adulthood. Will they ever shake off the shackles of unrealistic expectations? Will they forever believe that the world is theirs by right rather than through toil? As they become parents themselves, how sharp will their elbows become? What new misery will be handed down to their children for teachers to fix?
Because it will be up to us. Concern for the emotional well-being and mental health of children will only rise and we will respond. Any opinion we have of the parents, standing outside the school gates, must not deter us from caring and taking on the challenge. It is our duty to unlock those gates and set up lines of communication that are professional, open and honest. Some parents will embrace us, some will despise us, but all will know we are there. We can never give up because we have to believe that we can make a difference. Even when the tools at our disposal, for getting these children ready cope in the real world, are about as effective as toothpicks against a dragon.
This be the verse.