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

20/11/17: In part two of his blog, Simon Vincent looks at the pitfalls of Snowplough Parenting, the need for teenage boys to develop a sense of self-reliance as well as the importance of consistent boundaries. You can read part one here.

Some years ago the Headmistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School wrote an article bemoaning the rise of what she called ‘Snowplough Parenting’. Many were familiar with the concept of Helicopter Parents, but I was struck that her use of the snowplough was more apposite. The model that this reflects is where parents ‘attach’ themselves to the front of their child’s life and act like a snowplough, clearing all obstacles out of their child’s way. These children are never allowed to be disappointed, or to fail to make a team, or to fail to win a prize of some sort, or cope with any kind of setback. I totally understand the deep-felt desire to see one’s child happy and successful, but have seen enough of this to conclude that this kind of action is not an effective preparation for life. The wonderful opportunity for boys at boarding school is the opportunity to take some control over aspects of their lives and to do this by developing dialogue with a number of adults and peers who are not their parents. This encourages honesty, negotiation, consistency and a focus on the importance of cause and consequence. 

This is where mirror-gazing comes in. My Platoon Sergeant at Sandhurst (CSgt Broad Grenadier Guards) had a habit, when officer cadets came to him with problems or complaints, of making them stand in front of a bathroom mirror. “Whenever you think that you are having a bad time,” he would say, “whenever you think that the world is against you, that life is unfair, just look in the mirror and say ‘50% of my problems are looking back at me right now.’ Once you accept that the only person you can rely upon to sort your problems out is you, then you can move on.” Now obviously CSgt Broad was interacting with adults, but his belief was that you cannot control what other people do, only what you can do, and that time reflecting on the unfairness of life was wasted. This takes years, but I believe that a central part of growing up as a teenage boy is to at least have the impression that you are sorting things out for yourself. There are, of course, many people in an institution like a boarding school to support teenagers in this, but the confidence gained by teenagers when they start to take control of providing their own solutions is invaluable. 

Possibly my most important words are about something that is the most difficult to demonstrate. In dealing with boys, and men, consistency is key. Boys don't really do ‘mercurial’, they get confused by mood swings and they often don’t read social situations appropriately as a result. Boys welcome boundaries. It doesn't really matter where they are and it doesn't mean they won't push them, but the knowledge of a boundary puts boys’ minds at rest. If you are consistently harsh then fine, consistently relaxed equally so, but flipping from one to the other puts boys on edge. Life is easy at school. There are clear rules, clear sanctions and we can enforce them unencumbered by the massive handicap of loving the children in our care. We like them, of course, but attempts to play the guilt card or tug at the emotions are easily rebuffed, because they are the children we look after, not the children that we brought into the world. The main thing from a school point of view is that, despite what the boys may say, we do not treat them unfairly, have favourites or ignore them in favour of other children – it is profoundly not in our interests to do so. 

I hope that this insight gives parents the ability to take an objective view of telephone reports of ‘unfairness’.

In the third part of his blog, Simon will look at the important part experimentation and failure have to play in teenage boys’ development.