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Snowplough, helicopter or tough love? Parenting in preparation for the adult world.

I don’t know about you, but I find long distance solo car journeys provide a welcome opportunity to listen to a new audio book.  Over the weekend, during a rather long return journey to Snowdonia, I found myself engrossed in Abigail Shrier’s recent publication, ‘Bad Therapy: Why the kids aren’t growing up’.   

As many of you know, I have a real interest in child development. As an experienced Head Teacher and father of three, I am genuinely worried about the increasing incidence of mental health conditions in young people, the effects of which are not just detrimental for the young people involved but could prove disastrous for civilisation’s future. 

As I wrote last week, parenting has evolved since the 1990s.  Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Anxious Generation’, revealed that parents today are less inclined to allow children to play outside, to travel on public transport on their own or to visit the local store alone.  By removing opportunities to experience risk, Haidt contends, we are limiting children’s independence and development.  At the same time, he shows, parents are allowing unfettered access to the darkest and most depraved corners of society via smart phones and unfiltered internet access, often at a very early age. 

In ‘Bad Therapy’, Shrier makes the controversial assertion that children today are less ready for the adult world than ever before.  She claims that they have more mental health problems, are increasingly diagnosed and seemingly require more adult-led intervention than any generation before them.  

Shrier dares to ask 'what if by providing increasing levels of support, we are actually taking away the very opportunities children need to grow into functioning adults?'.  Are we snowploughing life’s challenges rather than preparing children for the path ahead? What if instead, by falling down on their own, children learn to stand unaided?   

At this point, you may either be nodding along earnestly in agreement or choking with furious indignation at the suggestion of such neglectful cruelty.  I won’t deny it is a controversial and emotive debate, but I believe it is one worth having for our children’s sake.   I do thoroughly recommend reading the book – let me know what you think either way. 

Here’s a little personal anecdote, if only for your amusement or judgement, depending on your viewpoint.  Several years ago, my wife and I were in a London park with our young family pushing a double buggy and watching my toddler on a scooter.  Many of you may remember (or may still be enjoying) these precious moments and will empathise.   Anyway, whilst rounding a particularly perilous corner at speed, said toddler managed to somersault over the handlebars of the scooter, landing with a sickening thud at the feet of a passerby.   The very kind lady went instinctively to help but I asked her to let him pick himself up - it was his mistake, therefore his problem to solve. 

Dozens of eyes turned to us in surprise, confusion and, I felt, not inconsiderable judgement.  I recount this moment as it is a crucial example of how it is only natural to protect children from pain or discomfort.  However, by doing so we may prevent them from learning about actions and consequences, and the lessons they teach us about resilience.  My reasoning was that next time, after the bumps and bruises had healed, my child will judge risk better, adjust their actions accordingly, and understand how to recover. We did of course give him a big cuddle afterwards but in the moment he needed to deal with the consequences alone. 

I firmly believe that children are far more capable than we give them credit for.  A TV show in Japan called, ‘Old Enough!’ even makes this point by challenging children as young as two to run errands and cross the street.  To be very clear I am not saying we should do this(!), rather it is an interesting reflection of the Japanese culture which prioritises these opportunities for personal development and independence.   Maybe we can learn something from their approach. 

This type of experiential learning was one of the reasons we introduced Forest School some years ago and continue to push outdoor education at all levels in Radnor.  I am very proud that over half of our Sixth form do the Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award each year, despite the rain, mud and general unpleasantness.  They do it not for the fun but for the challenge, which they embrace head on.  Next year we are creating more opportunities for personal development and I increasingly see it as a strategic priority in the years ahead.  Watch this space! 

David Paton is Head of Radnor House Sevenoaks

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