2016年8月3日 星期三

Pay close attention to who our children are – not who we want them to be

"or this is a world where ticking the right boxes equates to our ideas of success, and children who are different – the unexpected – can be left feeling wrong, feeling like failures. There is so much judgment in their lives, and it’s a consequence of so much prescription. Walk at this age, read at this age, behave like this, dress like that, hit these marks, achieve that score, like that post, and get good grades so you can go to the right university and earn a lot of money."


Source: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/jun/27/pay-close-attention-to-who-our-kids-are-not-who-we-want-them-to-be


Inever really went in for the concept of learning from one’s children. Every time a celebrity with a freshly baked newborn would gush about how much the little bundle had taught them I would roll my eyes and think oh, come on! Not only did this half-blind creature not ask to be brought into the world, they have to provide you, the parent, with all the answers too? What a burden.
It’s supposed to be the other way round, right? Fill the empty vessels with your hard-won wisdom, teach them well, watch them tick off their milestones at the mandated moments, mould them into strictly regulated versions of oneself, and look forward to a life of martyrdom and smug pride in your supreme parental efficacy. This is the program.
Yes, well. I’ve learned the long and hard way – indeed in a lesson taught by a child – how wrong I’ve been.
What do you do when your child is so different to you? Andrew Solomon comprehensively asked and answered this question in his epic exploration of identity in families, Far From the Tree, in which he touched on the ego-oriented parental conundrum: “Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents,” he wrote, “we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.”
This is the natural progress of the generations, of course, and that’s the way it should be – you might be handing down your DNA, but if it’s a perpetuation of self you’re after, you’re in the wrong game.
When our kids are little we have a sense of control (the terrible twos notwithstanding) and carte blanche to impose our will. We dress them how we like, we feed them what we like, we tell them what to do or say and mostly our authority goes unchallenged. The benign dictatorship remains intact.
Whole forests have been sacrificed in order to explore the mysteries of adolescence and the resounding crash of intra-family power clash that comes with it, so I won’t go there, but these notions of authority are interesting. Why do we think we have it all so perfectly worked out and know what boxes must be ticked? The hyper-education of parents has a lot to answer for here – we read all the prescriptive books before they are born so we know what to expect when we’re expecting, and beyond.
But what shall we do with the unexpected?
When my daughter failed school, it was unexpected. When she became so anxious about competition and assessment and rankings that she would be doubled up crying in a laneway behind her school, it was unexpected. When it was a struggle to get her there everyday, it was unexpected. When she basically failed to tick most of the boxes that require ticking on her academic journey, it was unexpected.
For me – the box-ticker, the prefect, the good girl, the supplicant – it was doubly so.
I wrote an article about my daughter, my beautiful failure, which caused a reaction, and then I knew we weren’t alone. It was obvious that there was more to explore about kids and school and pressure and anxiety, the way we measure success, and how we deal with those who don’t easily slip into one-size-fits-all standards. That became my book.
For this is a world where ticking the right boxes equates to our ideas of success, and children who are different – the unexpected – can be left feeling wrong, feeling like failures. There is so much judgment in their lives, and it’s a consequence of so much prescription. Walk at this age, read at this age, behave like this, dress like that, hit these marks, achieve that score, like that post, and get good grades so you can go to the right university and earn a lot of money.
Meanwhile, the mob mentality and groupthink that kids used to be able to avoid by the simple virtue of going home in the afternoons has been infiltrated by 24-hour connectivity. Now the mob goes with them to the quiet places where once they would find themselves, be themselves, by themselves.
School demand that they conform to an ever-tapering view of success, as we focus more and more on academic outcomes and less on creativity, less on individuality, less on original thinking. If it’s not measured, it’s not valued, and the pressure to achieve a number strips out much that is wonderful about education. In the home, parents unwittingly add to the pressure because we’ve received the societal message too: get results, or else.
For the square pegs like my daughter, the anxiety can be paralysing, and this anxiety – and its handmaiden, depression – is vertiginously on the rise.
Just to pluck some disturbing numbers out of the deep well of disturbing numbers: 26% of kids are experiencing mental illness; 50 years ago the average age of the onset of depression was 28 and a half years of age, now it’s just 14 and a half years of age; by 2030, the World Health Organisation estimates depression will be the biggest health burden globally.
At younger and younger ages children are experiencing pressure to conform and perform – in their school lives, and in their social lives - and children will find their pressures valves. They will control their calorie intake in extremis until they are skin and bones, they will vomit from anxiety, they will pluck out their eyelashes one by one, they will risk take and medicate, or carve neat lines into their flesh until bright-red droplets announce the blessed sigh of release.
This quest for success, as we have narrowly defined it for them, is harming our kids. 


So what did I learn from the unexpected child? In the first instance she taught me to rethink these wriggly ideas of success or failure, and that we need to urgently broaden our notions of success, in schools and in the home. That in the midst of an epidemic of anxiety, we need to find ways to actually reduce pressure on kids – not just find ways to cope with that stress. That we must challenge the madness of this pressure, find out where it comes from and what it’s for.
But she also taught me that we must treat all authority with suspicion, parental authority included. That we have to pay close attention to who our children are – not who we want them to be – and respond accordingly. That we have to look carefully at all the accepted wisdoms about the way we educate our kids, and ask how these inform the society we live in. When you do that, you go from a world where only your child matters into a world where every child matters.
Lucy Clark’s book Beautiful Failures is published by Ebury Press


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