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“I wanted to see what would happen!” part one

This week Simon Vincent shares his insights into teenage boys after 12 years as housemaster of a junior boys’ house at Bryanston. The first in his three-part blog looks at communication, or the lack thereof.

I need to come clean at the start – I have never parented a teenage boy. I have three girls (which presents its own issues!), but I have stood in loco parentis for nearly 440 13- to 14-year-old boys over the last 12 years and I hope that this has put me in a position to offer some insight. 

“I wanted to see what would happen” is a phrase that I heard many times over the last 12 years when questioning boys about something particularly stupid and thoughtless that they had done. This ranged from spraying deodorant at close range onto their nipples to see if they would freeze, to drinking the contents of a glow-stick and then standing in a loo with the lights off and waiting to see if their wee would glow in the dark! Indeed, these are some of the more explainable ‘experiments’ and when, during the course of an investigation into an incident, I would ask “What were you thinking?” the answer would often be “I don’t know.” This was an honest answer – they really didn’t know what they were thinking, but just did it anyway to “see what would happen.” This is part of both the frustration and charm of teenage boys; they live in the moment, sparing little thought for consequence or caution. They are natural risk-takers and, if harnessed, this can be a great route to success, but the path is a dangerous one also. 

I find most teenage boys eager to please, loyal almost to a fault, and endlessly entertaining. To see this, however, one has to accept the inevitability of failure. Teenagers will let you down, they will make errors of judgement, they will do stupid things and once you have grasped this reality, you can get on with the business of building relationships with them.

Of course, my generic teenage boy does not apply to every child, but almost all that I have looked after display some of the traits I am about to describe. I have no qualifications other than experience for these thoughts and please feel free to ignore them as you wish.

Most boys are not great communicators – at least not with their parents. They tend only to see the point in communicating when there is something they want or need to offload. The key to this is that they do not see their parents as human beings in the strict sense of the word, more as simple conduits for their own desires. This is precisely what we as parents have been encouraging for the previous 13 years, delighting in the fact that these are ‘our’ children, who we take pride in caring for. Teenage boys coming to boarding school are starting to think of themselves less as ‘ours’ and more as ‘theirs’, but the apron strings still pertain when they cannot make something happen on their own. This needs to be borne in mind when having telephone conversations with teenage boys – there is usually a reason for the phone call, and it is rarely just to have a nice chat! 

My advice for dealing with the above is as follows:

If they want something, try to resist giving it to them straight away (be it something physical or your support to make something happen). They have come to boarding school to become more independent and there are channels within the school to sort out any issues they have. If they do not have something, or are not able to do something, there is usually a credible reason for it (bad organisation, rules etc). Most teenage boys have an over-developed sense of injustice and a complete inability to see things from any point of view other than their own. I lost count of the irate calls from parents claiming that a member of staff had ‘unfairly’ prevented a boy from going down to Blandford or that ‘everyone’ had a new pair of Beats headphones and it was ‘social suicide’ not to have them. These were the teenagers’ words being projected back to me. In these cases, the purpose of the call home was evident: they wanted their parents to put pressure on the school to allow the trip to Blandford or they wanted new headphones. Simple. All the surrounding hyperbole was aimed at tugging at the parental heartstrings. There is a danger here, for the moment the teenager senses that parents are ‘on their team’ against the school the slippery slope becomes precipitous. 

When it comes to your son offloading negativity, please try not to worry too much. This tends to be something that lands on mothers and makes them feel wretched. If boys have worries they are not great at talking them through with their friends. They phone their mothers, offload all their negative thoughts, then get back to life as normal, happily relieved of the burden. This is a coping mechanism for them and they spare not a single thought for the worrying that is going on at home. In my experience, most boys do not phone up when things are going well, or if they are having a good time with their friends. In these cases their emotional needs are already being met so why bother to seek any added validation from their parents? This may sound harsh but, from what I have seen, it is truly the way that most of their minds work.

This treatment of parents by teenagers shocks some at first. We at boarding school are in the privileged position of seeing the very best of the teenagers that we look after. This is because they know that they have to work at gaining our trust and liking (or that of their friends) and pour all their efforts into this. A parent’s love is unconditional, and they know that, so often by the time they get home they have exhausted their reservoirs of pleasantness. I think that as long as we parents can be sure that our teenagers behave well with other adults, then we can celebrate that.

In part two of his blog Simon will look at Snowplough Parents, the importance for teenagers to learn self-reliance and the need for consistency from parents and other adults around them.