I remember an old line…”If you want to be served at a restaurant, take a table near a waiter.” The joke was that the advice was futile because waiters move and tables do not. That is the problem with most advice; it is just not practical. Having said that, the following comments may appear too much like advice. They are not; they are more personal observations after nearly 50 years of being head at York Prep.
My first observation is that most parents over-estimate their ability to affect who their child is, and, by extension, the way their child learns. Children are each individuals and have highly individual ways of growing. Some are overly shy while others are extremely gregarious, some are good in math while some are good in music. A few are good at both or neither. These are traits that parents think they may be able to control…my experience is that they cannot. The irony is in the second observation which is that when parents can control the negative behaviors of their child, they too often do not.
So let me draw clearly the distinction. Your child is not particularly social. Well, that is the way the child is “configured.” Similarly in the reverse; your child is over-social. I do not believe there is much you can do about that either. But let us say that that the shy or over-social child is addicted to their cell phone. In this case, you can and should act…limit its use or take it away! That action will not change the character of the child, but it will prevent the negative dependency on the gadget. The intrinsic character of the child certainly had something to do with the problem, and I have indicated that I do not think you can do much about that. Indeed I would suggest that you accept the child for who he or she is. But the cell phone is an object that you have given, and what you have given, you can take away. Substitute the act of not taking away the cell phone with the allowance of letting your child sleep late on the weekends so that their circadian rhythm is disordered, allowing them to spend too much money on luxuries that they think they are entitled to (taxis spring to mind), or allowing them to stay over with friends whose families you have not met and whose standards of supervision you have no idea about. My observation is that the controls that parents can exercise are sometimes less exercised than they could be. They cannot change the child but they can affect the child’s behavior.
We at school are faced with the same conundrum. We also need to recognize what we can and cannot do. We cannot change the child’s character. We cannot make a musician out of a non-musician, or an athlete out of a non-athlete, or change an introvert into an extrovert. We also cannot affect intrinsic ability. We can encourage (as we should all the time) the ethical course of action by a child. We do need to promote creative thinking since all young people are curious. Through that curiosity we can ask questions and those in turn lead to a deeper understanding of the world around us. But we should also control situations that would result in negative outcomes. We need to take away phones that are used in class, make a stand when a child is late all the time, encourage respect to other members of the community, and require the child to make up homework that they have failed to do.
The parallels in our courses of action are clear but difficult to follow. A teacher has to decide whether a child who answers one difficult question understands the problem or made a lucky stab at the solution. If, to take another example, a child makes a mistake at school (sometimes children do), we need to look at the child and judge whether this is an out of character “one-off”, or another act in a continuing stream of character-revealing actions. What we can do and what we cannot do, are questions that as parents and educators we realistically have to face all the time.
There are limits in changing the intrinsic essence of the young. I think we all have to accept them for who they are and, indeed, take joy in their individuality. The goal of a school is, in the end, the same as that of parents. We should not seek to change the basic nature of the child because we cannot. What we should do is try to improve the child by enhancing capabilities, instilling coping and confidence mechanisms for any inherent weaknesses, encouraging their natural curiosity and creativity, and teaching each child to truly seek the best version of himself or herself to present to the world.
I recognize that all this sounds difficult, and so my advice after reading this column is to take two aspirin, go to bed early, and, when in a restaurant, always take a table near a waiter.
Ronald P Stewart