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

22/11/17: Following on from parts one and two of his blog, Simon Vincent continues to share his insights into teenage boys, gained over his 12 years as a junior boys’ housemaster.

"Mistakes are the portals of discovery." - James Joyce

Most boys have an innate desire to find things out for themselves and, given the opportunity, will do so despite the best advice that they are given. Certainly, the consequences can seem terrifying, but I would contend that the consequences of not allowing them to do so are worse. The well-known observation “Why, when someone tells you that there are 100 million stars in the universe do you believe them, yet when you see a sign saying ‘Wet Paint’, do you have to touch it to check?” is one that applies particularly to teenage boys. What makes this worse is the extent to which they wind each other up and challenge an arms race of bravado. Among young teenage boys unused to each other’s company this forms an essential part of early interaction. Boys are not great at having meaningful conversations about themselves, as they are all terrified that others will find them boring and immature. They are so desperate to show their credentials to their peers that they exaggerate to an amusingly ridiculous degree. In an overblown social version of the card game Liar, the stakes of calling each other out are raised by the prospect of being called out in turn. What is left is an environment where boys think that others may not be telling the entire truth, but recognise that they, in turn, have perjured themselves so they all just go along with the illusion. I have overheard the most ridiculous (and often shocking) claims of boys earnestly telling others that their dad invented the SAS or that they have been to a pool party with Rihanna or other such nonsense! I remember clearly the horror when I saw a (not very gymnastically-talented) boy in the house garden standing on the fence, surrounded by a cheering crowd, and clearly about to do a back flip off it. Time seemed to slow down as I rushed for the back door to try and stop him, but flip he did, landing flat on his back on the hard ground. I had images of A&E flashing in my head. Thankfully he was unhurt, but what emerged was that he had told other boys so many times that he could do it, that he had actually begun to believe that he could. This is a fairly benign example, but it is at the root of many that are less so.

The world is changed and it is an inevitability that our risk-averse culture has arisen (especially with the paperwork at schools). This is all very sensible and helps to keep the lawyer from the door, but I am not the first to recognise that organised fun is often no fun at all! My best memories of boarding school are not the wonderful school trips or the coaching sessions we had but those where we went freestyle, took charge of our own leisure time and tried to do something different. Pupils still do this, thankfully, and in a much more controlled environment the thrill of doing something for themselves has added piquancy. The boys, when left to their own devices, are often much more sensible and risk-averse than we give them credit for, but our inability to give them enough leeway makes them all the more committed to challenging action. I completely understand the desire to keep children safe, but the teenage years are a time when the mantle of ‘child’ is starting to shrug from their shoulders and they are looking (albeit through rose-tinted, psychedelic spectacles) at the fact that they may be a viable individual in their own right. I see our role as giving them advice and a road map, whilst always being on standby to jump in with roadside breakdown cover if really needed in case of failure.

Failure is probably the most important learning process in a teenage boy’s development, so let’s not deny it to them. Some years ago I coached an U14 rugby team with a colleague. Our season statistics by December read Played 15 Won 15 and County Cup Champions. Amid all the celebrations at the end of that autumn term, my colleague and I both voiced our misgivings. Most teenage boys have pretty high opinions of themselves and, if not slightly tempered, can cross over from confidence into arrogance. Don't get me wrong, I love my teams to win but when they start to believe their own hype about themselves there are problems coming. In this instance, rather predictably, the rugby team refused to listen to the advice that they were given to change the way they played at U15 level or to work on core skills. As a result they only won five matches out of 12 at U15 level. A quote from a classic film best summarises this when Commander Stinger tells the well-nicknamed Maverick (Tom Cruise), “Son, your ego is writing cheques that your body can’t cash.” This is spot on. In order to become better young men, boys must experience failure and disappointment and test themselves against that, rather than success. I do not suggest that we should create losing situations for them, rather that we allow them to fail (gently) more than trying vicariously to exorcise our own past failings by attempting to solve all issues for our children. This is to deny them the very learning opportunity that makes us seek to help them. Again, this is totally understandable and I am sometimes unable to resist with my own children – but I try.

And so ...

I have been enormously privileged to welcome so many wonderful young men into Bryanston over the last 12 years and I have been truly proud of the way that they have progressed and moved on. The fact that my first intake of boys is now 26 years old is terrifying but such is the march of time. As I have said, my main motivation in writing this is to provide some kind of balance to the emotional turmoil of parenting that is all the more accurately felt if your current teenager is your first. There is no blueprint for success here, just some observations about how to make a really difficult job as a parent a little bit easier and to make interaction with the school more straightforward. 

A former Headmaster of this school is reported to have told new parents that “A boarding school education is like cooking a casserole. Put all the parts in and as long as you don't lift the lid or stir it for five years it will turn out delicious.” This is probably apocryphal, but it does sum up a now-outdated attitude towards boarding. The reality these days is very different, but there is an essential point in the quotation. The whole point of these five years is a move towards adulthood – our children’s adulthood. Up until this point we have been their major guides through life, but this will probably not be the case in five years’ time and we need to learn to let them go a bit. This is a transitional period when teenagers are looking for other role models, other sources of advice, other sources of love and friendship. It is difficult for the boys, but far more difficult for the parents. Good luck!