Essential Rules of Parenting: Dealing with Your Child's School
(Excerpted from "The Rules of Parenting" by Richard Templar)
School Comes as a Package
There's no such thing as a perfect school. Your kids' school has several hundred, even thousand, parents, and there's no way they will all agree with everything the school does. If every policy had to be agreed by a unanimous decision of all parents, they'd never even be able to agree what time to start in the mornings.
So of course you're going to disagree with things. The amount of homework they give them, the severity -- or lack of it -- of the punishments, the stupid uniform they have to wear, the fact that they make them play football even if they hate it, the fact their assemblies are secular, the fact their assemblies aren't secular, making them learn Spanish instead of German, forcing them to play indoors whenever it rains…and on and on and on.
There's nothing you can do about it. Okay you can change schools, but the next one will have just as many irritating little ways. They'll just be different ones. And what's more, there's nothing your child can do about it -- which means that you're just going to make their school life miserable if you encourage them to undermine the system. They'll be in trouble with the teachers and quite possibly made fun of by their fellow pupils. No, they don't need conflicting messages from home and school.
The thing to grasp about any school is that it comes as a package. There are things you like about it and things you don't. If the ones you dislike outweight the pluses, maybe you need to think about changing schools -- that's another issue. But as long as you're there, you have to buy into the package as a whole. And that means that you have to support the school, even over the things you don't care for. You have to encourage your children to do their homework, even if you do think they have too much of it. And you might have to get them to wear a silly uniform, or play hockey, or treat the teachers with respect even if they don't respect them.
Fight in your Child's Corner
The previous rule was all about backing the school up, even when you don't agree with everything they do. But that doesn't have to be unconditional. You have to back them up over the policies and systems in general because that's part of the deal. But other things can crop up that are specific to your child, and you can't always leave the school to deal with it.
Your children needs to know that you're on their side. And when there are serious problems, you're the only one to champion their cause -- and sometimes they need a champion. If the school is not doing enough about bullying, or they're failing to recognize your child's dyslexia, or one particular teacher is making your child's life miserable, of course you need to do something about it. And your children need to know that you're there for them if things get beyond their control. That's what parents are for. The alternative is that your children see you allowing them to go on suffering.
It can be hard sometimes as an adult to remember the feeling of powerlessness you have as a child. Situations we can cope with easily now were impossibly daunting when we were young. And putting up with something for a few months may seem bearable now, but when you're 5 or even 15, a few months can seem to stretch out ahead of you forever. I can remember that sick feeling I used to get (repeatedly) before a lesson when I was going to have to fess up that I hadn't done my homework (again). If you stood me in front of that same teacher today and he tried to tear into me, I'd give as good as I got. But I couldn't back then. Children are conditioned to accept the teacher's authority, and they don't have the skills or the clout to fight the system for themselves. That's when you step in.
Bullying Is Always Serious
I know a child called Ned who hates his name because it rhymes with too many things and his classmates have, obviously, spotted this, "Ned, Ned, wets the bed" being one of their favorite chants. Now on one (rather pathetic) level, that's quite funny of course, but Ned doesn't think so.
It's easy for parents to brush this sort of thing off. They tell their child, "Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you." Rules parents, of course, know better than that. Of course a little gentle teasing is preferable to being beaten up daily for your lunch money. But not all verbal taunts come under the category of gentle teasing. They can be deeply hurtful and harmful to children.
The only thing that matters is how your child feels. It doesn't matter whether one child is calling them names or the whole class. It doesn't matter whether one kid kicked him in the shins yesterday or a gang is beating up on him regularly. It doesn't matter whether you personally choose to term it teasing ortaunting or bullying. The only way you can judge the severity of the problem is by how strongly your child feels about it.
And if your child is hurt and upset, you have to do something. You want to do something, of course. So do it. Depending on the circumstances, you may want to discuss with your child how he can handle it, or you may want to talk to the school. Or you may have another trick up your sleeve (changing Ned's name legally might be a bit drastic). But you must let your child see that if they he takes seriously, so do you.
Teach Them to Stand Up For Themselves
So what's this Rule about? Well, if your child is facing -- or might ever face -- bullying, the most crucial thing you can do is to teach him to handle it before it goes too far. Do you know why kids get bullied? For being different. And researchers have found that 75 percent of kids have been upset by teasing or bullying about their appearance. In fact, one in five have played hooky or feigned an illness to avoid being taunted about the way they look. Pretty scary figures, huh?
The two traditional methods of handling bullies are at opposite extremes. One school of thought says you should tell your child to hit back. However, not surprisingly, although this can work, it more often leads to an escalation of the problem. The other popular advice is to ignore it and the bully will stop. This is a piece of advice that some parents give because they want it to be true. But it isn't. All the evidence shows that the reverse is actually true.
So what's the answer? Your child's best bet is to look confident, make eye contact, and distract the bully by changing the subject. Of course, it doesn't work in every scenario, but if your child is naturally confident, has good self-esteem, and cares about his appearance, he's half way to not being bullied in the first place. And you can give him all those things well before he meets his first bully.
Put Up with Friends of Theirs You Don't Like
Do your children have any friends you're not keen on? That wild one in nursery who pulls other kids' hair when no one's looking? The girl in the fifth grade who's their best friend one day and not speaking to them the next? The 15-year-old who's always playing truant (and you're quite sure he smokes)?
Yep, right through your child's school career there will be friends you wish they didn't have. Maybe you feel they upset your child, or they're a "bad influence," luring them into sassing the teachers or ruining games. My mother hated any friends who didn't talk "properly" (bit of a problem in the south London school she sent me to). Still, at least she never found out about the one who taught me to make homemade explosives in his garden shed.
So what can you do about it? Well, assuming you've read the title of this Rule you know what I'm going to say. That's right -- you can just put up with it. Your children have to learn how to pick friends for themselves, even if you don't like their choices. They have to decide for themselves when they've had enough of Kirstie playing hot and cold with their friendship. Or whether cutting class with Jake during French is really a good idea.
And in the end, their decisions will come down to the values you've managed to impart. It takes time -- they have to experiment with the wrong friends in order to recognize the right ones. So don't beat yourself up if they're hanging out with a wild crowd at the age of six. In the end your good parenting will show through.
Let Up the Pressure
Your child is going to want to get certain grades at school. Whether it's exams or continuous assessment, whether it's just for the sake of doing well or whether they actually need the grades in order to pass the subject or get on to the course they want -- they will have to pass and maybe pass particularly well.
They know this. The teachers keep telling them. Their friends keep telling them. They keep telling themselves. They don't need you to tell them as well. Too much pressure can be counter-productive, and it can cause genuine and sometimes serious psychological problems for children.
You need to think about how stressed your children are about the whole exam thing. It's quite probable that already they're feeling the pressure a bit too much, even without your contribution. So rather than adding to the pressure, you need to add a bit of perspective instead. Look, it's hard to see past the end of school when you're a kid, and your job is to reassure your child that there are more important things in life than academic achievement, and that people who fail exams are just as likely to go on to become happy, fulfilled grown-ups. Yes if they do well in their exams, that will be wonderful, but if they don't, the world won't fall apart. If the poor child is already under too much strain, then you need to say something to take the pressure off, and actually give him a better chance of succeeding, rather than having a breakdown. And if that means reassuring him that it'll be okay whatever happens, then that's what you do.