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I recently found some of my primary school work that I had bought home and then used to play schools. I’d graded each poem and project out of ten and, using a red texta had scrawled comments like ‘grate stuff, good riteing’. I went to a rather alternative primary school in an era that is now being reviewed as too ‘progressive’, yet clearly I relished the power of playing teacher and wielding the red pen. Yet while schools have headed back to basics – bringing back subjects I lacked like spelling and grammar, the shift towards more positive interaction, is continuing. The cane is now banned in every state and, in some schools, even the red pen is being put out to pasture.
A school in Cornwall has banned the red pen saying it’s too negative and discouraging for students. Teachers now give three constructive comments in green pen and students respond in purple. Certainly anyone who has a child in primary school will know that criticism is rare and encouragement is now king. Honour awards and certificates are given out on a rotation and for all kinds of things such as ‘making a new friend’, ‘doing a lovely drawing’ or my child’s personal favourite ‘sharing his unique sense of humour with the class’. School reports also seem sweet – so much so that you need to read between the lines to find out if your child is doing well or not. Even the grading uses words such as ‘achieving’ or ‘still working’ rather than the A to Fs of yesteryear.
Such stories are easy to laugh and mock. Yet I find it interesting that they raise such fears and furies on talkback radio and online. Comments such as ‘Kids … can’t handle any negativity…. How will they cope when realise the world is harsh and they are not ‘special snowflakes’’ seem to be accepted and valid criticism. The concern is that we are raising another generation of self-centred, spoilt brats like the millennials are constantly told that they are.
But fear of children being self-centred, badly behaved and revolting is as old as philosophy itself. It’s said that Plato attributed Socrates with saying that -
‘The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannise their teachers.'
But while the quote is disputed in source to the ancient philosopher, the sighing about ‘youth of today’ is probably as old as a caveman’s grunt.
Indeed Plato himself advocated not to train a child by “force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each”.
He could have been a founder of the Positive Education movement of today.
‘Positive Education’ aims to be positive in all relationships with children. It uses language that is encouraging and avoids negativity and criticism. About 50 government and independent schools across Australia have adopted positive education in last five years, others are emulating some of their beliefs.
These schools argue they are not making kids soft, merely building their resilience and reducing stress. As I wrote about last week there are signs of significant anxiety on young kids today who face rising pressure to perform. But how to help them cope with modern life – by kindness or tough love - is a question hotly debated amongst parents and educators. Especially those who are teaching and bringing up already privileged kids who are sheltered from harsh living.
But can we go too far? Can some kids be so confident they are cocky little buggers who become bullies without empathy? We all know kids like that. Certainly researchers in Hong Kong are concerned they have too many of them in their local school system at present.
A study used a questionnaire that measures children's self-regard and their views of the outside world, as well as their means of achieving their desires. It found scores for narcissism and anti-social traits higher than in the US, UK and Australia. Meanwhile the American National Institute of Health says the incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older.
But it’s too easy to blame positivity on what may be a complex issue. Surely factors such as smaller families must be taken into account. Besides, in China praise is not given out as it is in the west.
To me kindness is an undervalued trait in modern life. Public shaming, belittling and negativity may toughen a child up on the surface but it’s sure to trigger cause anger and helplessness. I’m not advocating undeserved or insincere praise but cranky older people being worried about loved up youngsters seems to me to be too petty, jealous and sad to take seriously. I say get rid of the red pen, along with the cane; talk positively and constructively to kids and let them have certificates celebrating their mermaid sketches. Life gets tough enough later and resilience can be built in other ways than low marks and ‘could do betters’.
Take to my argument with red pen and a D minus if you like. Just don’t tell me. I may not be a millennium but I ‘m not into tough love at all.