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What is best for the children? Part one: Emotional development

Former Director of Admissions and biology teacher, Edrys Barkham, is our guest blogger over the summer holidays. This week Edrys takes a look at the pressures parents face today.

As intelligent members of the primate family, humans are genetically pre-programmed to be obsessive about our offspring, as highlighted in the delightful BBC programme Monkey Planet. Like most parents, I really wanted to do my best for my boys when they were children and to get my parenting ‘right’. However, it can be difficult to know what is best for our children when we are bombarded with advice on how to bring them up, much of it conflicting. If you put ‘parenting books’ into Amazon you get over 69,000 hits. There are guides for new parents, guides for parents of toddlers and guides for parents of teenagers. There is advice on using reward and punishment, advice on how to develop the ‘whole brain child’, how to have well-behaved toddlers, how to develop your child’s intelligence and how to be happier parents. One book will tell you children should have the opportunity to make their own decisions and another will give instructions on how to be a ‘Tiger Mum’, directing you to structure every moment of your child’s time with learning experiences. It’s a minefield for parents to know which is the best way forward and what is the best they can do for their children. 

A further pressure on parents, which often manifests itself when meeting other families on holiday, is that slightly competitive edge in the voice when discussing which school the children go to and its perceived academic standard, as well as the grades their children have, or are expected to have, achieved. As a result, some schools have become increasingly aware of parents’ perceptions of their academic status and, in order to maintain these, they only select the children they think will get the grades that reflect their academic position; this means that education becomes a process of maintaining the reputation of the school and this in turn puts pressure on children to achieve the top grades. 

This level of pressure is not making children happy and there is a growing national concern about the mental health of our country’s teenagers. Self-harm, high levels of anxiety, depression and other mental disorders are all on the increase across the country and, whilst more children are achieving top grades than when I was at school, I have to wonder at what cost. At Bryanston we do encourage our pupils to aspire to the best grades they can get, but within an atmosphere that also encourages creativity, breadth and problem solving. This approach has benefitted my own three boys as they embark on life after university; I am grateful to the school for the balanced and creative approach all three now take to deal with the difficulties they encounter in their adult lives. 

I am not proposing that we shouldn’t make our children academically competitive – I know I did as a mother and I do as a tutor and teacher – but I don’t believe that every experience in a child’s life has to be a structured learning one. Childhoods are increasingly dominated by a packed programme of clubs, societies, music lessons and journals. Extra tuition after school, at weekends or during the holidays is becoming the norm for some children. Activities are becoming prioritised by what a child will learn and if there is no academic outcome, it is often not valued. 

There is a pressure for parents to order their child’s life and micromanage every moment in order to show they are a loving parent doing the best for their child. However, there is evidence that suggests children also need space to be themselves, to think about things independently and to discover and explore in their own way and at their own pace. Children should be encouraged to pursue activities in which they have curiosity, even if their passion is not the area you would have chosen: trust your child’s natural instincts. Old Bryanstonian Nigel Barker (H ’90) developed his enthusiasm for photography whilst at school. He was on course for a medical career but had the courage to follow his passion with global success. It was refreshing to read in the Telegraph recently the ‘Heads’ Holiday Hot List’ of recommendations for the summer holidays, which included building dens, visiting the zoo and getting sandy on the beach. 

If a child doesn’t express any particular interest, then it really is fine to let them get bored. Boredom develops imagination and encourages a child to become content with themselves. Bored children start to explore in an open-minded way and it gives them the opportunity to challenge themselves and build their resilience to life’s frustrations. At Bryanston the pupils have a wide range of extra-curricular opportunities to tempt them to try new things and take responsibility for their own entertainment and, in doing so, develop really important life skills. So, when your child returns to school in September, know that with encouragement and the odd nudge when necessary he or she will develop new skills, build their self-esteem, and grow up happy and more likely to succeed in the adult world. 

Look out for part two of Edrys Barkham’s blog next week.

Tagged  Parenting