Serious Parenting

We all know the cliche – children don’t come with an operating manual’. Well, nor do jobs, professions, careers, companies or organisations. Yet, in those areas of life, people perceive that if they are to be successful they must invest time and effort in developing their skills, reflecting (alone and with others) on what does and doesn’t work, strategising and exploring best practices. So, why do we insist on treating parenting as a purely instinctual practice where ‘winging it’ and crossing our fingers are the easiest routes to take?

The world has changed. When we all lived in simple agrarian communities our work skills were generally passed down through some form of apprenticeship practices. It was almost inevitable that a son would follow the same profession as his father, so he would learn the skills directly through observation and then trial and error as he grew up. Child rearing was almost entirely the female domain and mothers also learned their skills through the family. This often started with small duties as an elder sibling and then moved on to being a parent themselves.

Just as the world of work and being economically productive has changed, so has the domain for parenting. In the developed world the vast majority of children are raised in nuclear families and the time investment by parents is something to be juggled with professional and other duties and a whole lot of potential distractions. Yet, whilst the vast majority of people invest time and effort in getting as good as they can at what they do professionally, the parenting domain is yet to catch up. People see it as somehow stigmatizing to admit that their parenting skills are less than stellar.

Skill levels at parenting aren’t determined by class, profession or background. Good and bad parenting exist at all levels of the social spectrum. Perhaps more importantly, the ability to do it better – to be a better parent – also exist at every level.

This is why i can fully understand the rationale for the recent announcements from the Prime Minister of Britain, David Cameron about provision for parenting classes;

The Guardian – David Cameron

I think the title of the article is a bit off-putting – a bit of journalistic licence that contributes little. Effective parenting is about so much more than discipline and control. The article leaves a few things unclear. I’m not sure if this is only targeted at parents of very young children, or right through the age ranges. Courses and programmes do need to be tailored for their audience and the age of their children. Also, there can be variations in the extent to which programmes incorporate the theoretical background to what’s put forward. I would recommend a very workshop based approach where the parents are actively engaged in the process of figuring out solutions for themselves. Also, it probably makes sense if courses don’t try to convey too much in a single session, but give parents time and chance to take away their ideas, try them out and then come back and reflect on their success. Also, some element of ongoing ‘coaching’ support could be appropriate for a period of months.

Some might question whether government are the right body to be engaging i this process. However, my view is – if that’s what it takes, then so be it. I have long seen it as an important part of the service offering of schools where i have been leading – to support parents in the process of being the best parents they can be, as they assist and motivate us to be the best educators we can be. This moving forward in partnership can be incredibly powerful as an influence for children. However, I’m conscious that in the UK the reaction of schools, their teachers and leaders to being asked to take on this task might be very negative as they perceive they are already very overstretched n terms of manpower and resources.

So, in short, I back David Cameron on this one and believe it’s worth the try. As a society we have to come together to work for the good of all children, to give every one of them the best possible opportunities to grow to be the best they can be. For that, the better their parents and educators are at their ‘jobs’ the better.

Teenagers in the Twenty First Century

Who would want to be a teen today, given the choice? Not me, thanks.

It was bad in enough in ‘our time’, but I reckon that for teens today there are extra layers of challenge, complexity and stresses that we were spared. However, it’s also a reality that the burden and unpleasantness today isn’t all experienced by the child – us parents carry our share of the burden too.

This article from Huffington Post UK, written by Chloe Combi highlights realistically some of the challenges and issues, especially related to the role that technology plays in the lives of today’s teens;

Huffington Post – Parenting Teenagers in the 21st Century

Whilst reading the article I couldn’t help wondering a bit about the extent to which teens are the architects of their own challenges. So much of the competition, the bullying, the offensive online behaviour is done by teens to teens. Also, as an educator, I’m inevitably drawn to question whether we and the way we run schools are part of the problem or part of the solution. Do we contribute to that sense that teens have of being in competition over everything? Would the situation improve if more emphasis was placed on the development of empathy, EQ and collaborative skills?

There is a perspective that suggests that for those who moved from teens in to adulthood over the last 10-15 years life was harder than for today’s teens. In Western ‘advanced’ economies the baby boomers are reaching retirement at such a rate that far exceeds the number of Generation X coming in to the working environment to replace them. This brings all sorts of other risks such as skills shortages, a sense of privilege and poor work ethic, but it may well mean that they don’t need to be as competitive to fight for themselves as those who went before.

Inevitably, the article also talks a lot about the role of technology in teen’s lives. It really can be all-consuming and, I fear, is creating distorted perceptions about human relations. When a young person chooses to be ‘online’ using social networking, they can portray themselves in any way they choose and interact with others who are also ‘acting out’ roles. In the real world, when teens interact with friends, they come to understand that all have good days and bad days, say smart things and foolish things, have strengths and weaknesses – in short – they know and accept their peers as three dimensional human beings. However, in online social networking everyone becomes a bit less themselves, can keep their weaknesses, foibles and less positive aspects hidden and can therefore seem simpler, easier to deal with and more appealing. Whilst this may be beguiling for the teen, it presents a distorted experience of human nature.

There is much that is happening with today’s teens that is unprecedented. As a result, nobody has all the answers or can accurately predict all the implications. We need more research and we need it quickly.

Raising Boys

In these days of political correctness, some suggest it’s heresy to talk as if there is any difference between boys and girls – that ‘equality’ means ‘the same’. However, we know that right from the moment of birth (many would say even earlier than that) parents and caregivers treat boys and girls differently, communicate with them differently and respond to their needs differently.

The result is that boys and girls grow up with very different expectations about how they should be, what’s expected of them and how to expect the world to respond to them. However, then, these early planted perceptions come up against a changing world.

As someone who works and strives to fulfil both parent roles for my son and an educator, I know I don’t always get it right. I make mistakes and I have days when I have to strive to do better. So, I was particularly pleased when I came across this very thoughtfully written article in which the author, Tabitha Studer, has set out 25 rules for mothers of boys;

Gimundo – 25 Rules for Mothers of Boys

I’m not going to say I agree perfectly with all 25, but they’re a good read. At the end, i was left concluding that more application of these rules wouldn’t only be good for the boys (growing in to men) concerned, but for society as a whole.

Dads Still Matter

This week we’ve seen some interesting things going on in our Kindergarten classes. Our children in the lower classes have their learning in school based around themes. Most of the time, a theme goes on for about a month. We wanted that children get to ‘wind up’ a theme, to draw it to a conclusion and to reflect on the learning journey they have taken. This also offers a wonderful opportunity to open up the learning process for parents – for the children themselves to share what they’ve been learning and what it means to them.

We wanted this to start last month, but with no road outside the school things were too messy. However, now we have a beautiful smooth road surface outside the school, so the opportunity had arrived. The class teachers engaged the children in discussions about how they wanted to show their learning from the latest theme (the seasons). Out of all the discussions one interesting theme that emerged was their keenness to share their learning with their dads.

So, it was just the dads who were invited to join the children in their classrooms this week. The children showed them their learning at various work stations and put on small performances associated with specific seasons in their classrooms (such occasions will now be a regular part of wrapping up the themes, so Mums won’t get left out!).

Whilst happy, some of the dads were surprised that it was them who had been invited. This reminded me of an article i wrote over 5 years ago. That article was entitled “Dads Matter Too!”. So, I couldn’t resist sharing that article again here. In the ‘driven’ economic environment of UAE I think that the issue assumes even greater significance and the reminder even more important.

Here it is – and feedback, please from both Mums and Dads!

In a recent survey of school children, when they were asked what they wanted from their fathers the answers didn’t include; a new bicycle, a Play Station 3 or even the keys to the Mercedes! Instead, overwhelmingly and with equal vigour both the boys and the girls responded that they wanted their dads to spend time with them, to really communicate with them and to be available for them.

Wearing both my hats, as Director of the school and as a dad I know this is a really tough one. There’s something about the pace and drive of 21st century urban life that encourages the hunter- gatherer in us – we go out, interact with the world outside, do battle and bring home the goods. However, there’s growing evidence that our youngsters are growing up with increasing problems and that some of what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working. As the adage goes; if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.

I was recently really struck by an excellent short documentary I saw from UK about an inner city school with some discipline problems and other challenges. One of the ways they addressed the issues was to form a Dads group that met regularly (in a pub!). It was understandable to see how hesitantly some of the fathers approached the whole idea of joining such a group. However, as time went on they found more and more value in discussing parenting issues from a Dad’s perspective, exchanging ideas, building confidence in their abilities to take an active share of the parenting load.

One of the most interesting tests I ever came across for this was – can you name 10 of your child’s close personal friends, playmates or class mates? If you can without making mistakes then you’re doing pretty well.

Sadly, like it or not, our schools in India are populated almost entirely by women. Especially in Primary School, where there are men they are usually not involved with the ‘serious’ curricular subjects, but with sports or the arts. Whilst this has an effect on the boys, the girls do not go unaffected. Children grow up with an impression that this learning business is best done by/ with women and this gets reinforced if Mum is the go-to person for all homework queries, the person who checks the school bag and writes all the notes to the teacher.
It’s all too easy to fall in to the trap of Dad getting delegated the ‘troubleshooter’ role in the family. It starts out with those repetitive little acts of discipline which eventually prompt a “Wait till your dad gets home.” So, when you do get home you have to jump straight in to disciplinarian mode with the aim being to deal with the issue as swiftly as possible so that you can unwind after a hard day slaying wild beasts in the urban jungle. Another day goes by when any real opportunity to interact with your child, to really get to know their emerging qualities as a person goes by unfulfilled.

So, what are the chances of more Dads active in school, attending parent workshops? Getting actively engaged with school and actively engaged with your child could be the first step on an exciting and rewarding new journey. Come on Dads – we matter too!

Rex Conclive 2012

Citizenship, parenting and education that genuinely prepares young people for the Twenty First Century. My presentation at Rex Conclive 2012:

The ‘Right Way’ to Parent in the 21st Century

This parenting business really isn’t easy and we should really be very doubting of anyone who seeks to suggest it is. So much so, as this article highlighted, vast numbers of parents feel the need to ‘fake it’ and pretend things which aren’t actually true to appear to be succeeding at a mythical ‘right way’ to be a parent.

Parenting Lies Article – BBC

This is the context and backdrop against which I believe we must view the latest furious debate that has erupted over the Chinese ‘Tiger Mother’ following the publishing of a new book by Yale Law School Professor, Amy Chua:

The background to the Chinese education scenario and the attitudes to parents is summed up well in this BBC article:

‘Tiger Mothers’ Article – BBC

Professor Chua’s argument is a simple one – no nonsense, no compromise, parent knows best parenting as practiced by many Chinese parents breeds winners more frequently than more laissez faire, tolerant ‘Western’ parenting ways. Her viewpoints are expressed in some detail in the following essay ahead of the book’s publication in the Wall Street Journal:

Amy Chua Essay – Wall Street Journal

I’m sure that reading that will leave readers with many different emotions. I’m not sure how many of us could be 100% comfortable with all that she says. However, there were a couple of aspects of her perspective that I really liked;

  1. A starting assumption on the part of a parent that their child has it within them to be a winner – a ‘can do’ mentality rooted in a belief that they have a right to succeed, perhaps even a duty to fulfil their true potential. When I define ‘success’ I mean it in more than just the conventional sense. One can be a successful spouse, parent, sibling, friend, citizen as well as employee or employer, artist, musician, sportsperson etc.
  2. A recognition that if you’re ever to be truly great at something (anything) it’s effort that will get you there and that it’s going to require practice and an acceptance of delayed gratification. It’s not as though this is a new idea, even in the West. For example, in recent years, Malcolm Gladwell has been writing extensively on his belief that 10,000 hours of practice is the requirement to be truly good at anything. Where the difference comes is in Amy Chau’s plain openness about the belief that children are not the best judges about whether or not to put effort in to something, when to put that effort in or how much is enough. I believe as time goes on and so-called ‘Western parenting’ evolves I sense a diminishing ability for children to delay gratification (to accept that sometimes what they want will come later as a result of their doing what they need to in the short term). I also sense a greater discomfort with ‘No’ and a struggle to cope when things are not the way they want them to be.

That doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with all of Amy Chau’s methods. That said, when I look around and see so many parents confused and muddling along in their practice as parents I can at least admire that Chau has figured out what is her strategy and is consistent. Her children will not be left in doubt about where their mother stands – they have the clarity that children often crave. Children of uncertain, waivering parents are too often left floundering to figure out right and wrong and the boundaries for their lives. I am greatly troubled in public places when I see children ‘running wild’, behaving badly where the parent’s approach is to ignore it repeatedly until they reach a point where they have had enough, at which point the same act or one no more serious than those previously suddenly earns them a physical or verbal sharp reprimand. The hurt on such a child’s face says more to me of confusion over the inconsistency and a sense that the parent had cheated them in to believing the behavior was OK, until they hit out.

To look at some varying views on the views Chua has expressed, the New York Times put together 8 people from different fields and perspective to share different perspectives on the debate. Their views are really well worth reading.

New York Times – Debate

I would love to hear a cross section of views from parents and teachers in this fascinating debate.

Tackling Teenage Drinking

Here’s an interesting short piece from Hindustan Times. To me, it doesn’t only convey a sensible message based upon the research about how to tackle teenage drinking, but in a broader sense shows the way for sound relationships between parents, caregivers and educators and teenagers.

Hindustan Times article

The answer – high accountability, high warmth. The two are perfectly compatible. Too often, when we see children who are going off the straight and narrow or having problems it’s because there is neglect of one or the other. These days, too often, we’re seeing busy (sometimes guilty) parents who are high on the warmth but not putting in the work on accountability – with their children paying the price.

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