A message to parents

Extracted from a letter to parents of 2017:


An Alice Miller student was overheard last year telling a new boy `When you come to this school, you sign up for an adventure.’


Well, he got that right.


On January 7 2017 The Age ran a story about a 17 year-old boy who had been home-schooled for almost all his educational career. He was quoted as saying: “In school you have no time to really discover what you like … school doesn’t prepare you for life. When you come out [of school], the life you live is totally different, because you [have been] sitting in class all day.”


I don’t think that could be said of Alice Miller (or Candlebark).


What we try to do is to provide an environment where young people can learn to cope with the vicissitudes of life. The comfort of students is not our first priority; by which I mean that we don’t pander to children who suffer from one of the curses of the 21st century, namely, learned-helplessness. We want children to experience discomfort, challenges, adversity; in other words, both success and failure.


As I said to students last year, the weddings we remember are the ones where something goes wrong. The bridal car breaks down, a dog eats half the cake, the reception area floods and the guests’ cars all get bogged (that’s what happened at our wedding J ), the celebrant is drunk… When everything goes perfectly, the wedding can seem bland and forgettable.


To relate this to schools: a lot more learning usually takes place when a concert or excursion or camp or trip does not go perfectly. There is certainly potential for a lot more learning in these cases. I call this “super-learning”, because it is above and beyond the normal learning that one might have expected from the experience. I know from teaching English that the most powerful and memorable lessons often result from something completely unexpected. It may seem paradoxical, but if someone leaves a passport on a bus, or two best friends have a falling-out, or campers run out of food, or a couple of strings break on the violin as you play your first note… then the adventure, and the “super-learning”, begins.


All jobs, all significant relationships, many experiences, have some ugly moments and some difficult aspects. Every life has speed bumps, road blocks, wrong turns, potholes. Sometimes there’s no obvious bridge by which the river can be crossed. Sometimes the bridge collapses under you. Sometimes you gotta go backwards, or take a major detour.


Because life is like that, we need our schools to be like that.


I’ve been told that a traditional Chinese blessing is “May you have many interruptions”. I hope this is true – I’m getting a bit sceptical about the number of wise sayings attributed to Confucius and Albert Einstein, in particular! Regardless, I do think that to wish people many interruptions makes for a great blessing. We were taken aback at the start of last year by the learned helplessness exhibited by a considerable number of students at Alice Miller. For many, a timetable inconsistency, a lost textbook, a reprimand from a teacher, resulted in their running off into the bush, or locking themselves into a toilet cubicle, from where they would ring their mother/father/grandparent, sobbing their distress and beseeching someone to come and get them. Unfortunately, too many times, parents did come and get them, thus denying the teenagers a chance to develop problem-solving skills and increase their confidence and resilience.


A Swedish lady told me the other day that in Sweden they have a name for a certain kind of parent. They call them “curling” mums or dads. Curling is that extraordinary sport where large chunks of polished granite slide on ice towards a place called “home”. Part of curling is controlling the trajectory of the boulder by assiduously sweeping all impediments out of its way, to ensure its smooth path to its destination.


I hardly need to spell out the analogy.


I heard an interview on Radio National today, January 18, where the expression “alongsiding” was used to describe a particular style of parenting. Alongsiding was defined as working alongside your children, being at your children’s side advising and supporting, rather than coming from an authoritarian “Because I say so” approach, and not to be confused with a “We’re best friends” approach. I like the expression, because in my experience it is the only parenting style which results in well-rounded, well-balanced, emotionally healthy adults.


During teenage years, relationships and social issues are the most likely source of angst. Although Alice Miller is a caring, inclusive environment, it is not Shangri-La. It is not perfect. We have forty new students starting at the school in a couple of weeks. We simply don’t know what impact they will have, how well they will integrate, how they will treat other students, how returning students will treat them. There are strategies however that can be taught, and that can help young people to negotiate social difficulties. As parents, you can be powerful agents in this process.


Here are some suggestions as to how parents can best advise and support teenagers:


Firstly, don’t tell them to ignore someone who’s giving them a bad time, as that hardly ever works. Ignoring someone is a sophisticated skill that takes huge amounts of energy, concentration and self-discipline.


Ask instead what they can do to make the other person/people like them. It’s a powerful question to ask someone: `What can I do that’ll make you like me?’


If your child believes he or she has suffered a great indignity at someone else’s hands, try to find out specifically what was happening, and what was said to your child. Is it possible that he or she was being given feedback? The feedback young people give each other is often not as sophisticated as we would like. In an ideal world it might be “Xanthe, I felt really hurt and rejected when you wouldn’t share your calculator with me in maths this morning.” However in the real world it’s more likely to be something like: “Xanthe, you’re just a selfish cow.” The word “selfish” is the critical word in the sentence, as it may be authentic feedback, even though it’s expressed in a less than ideal manner. The word needs to be unpacked. Maybe Xanthe is not good at sharing, is too possessive, and needs help in understanding that. Achieving such an understanding may be an important step forward in improving her social relationships.


Is it possible that the indignity suffered by your son or daughter was a simple case of tit for tat? If your child has kicked someone, he or she hasn’t got much to complain of if the other person hits him or her. Unless there is a reliable eyewitness, it’s pretty much impossible to work out whether the force used by one party was out of proportion to the force used by the other.


Suggest your child talks to a teacher — but they should do it, not you, on their behalf. (For one thing you don’t know what happened: you’ve only heard one version of the episode/s).


Give them some effective phrases that they can use. Teach them to give specific feedback; not `I hate you’, but `I hate how you keep grabbing the window seat.’ `If you keep saying racist stuff I’d rather not hang around with you.’ ‘I feel like you’re trying to cut me out so you can have Alison all to yourself. Can’t we make it that we’ll be three equal friends?’


If Paddy is having trouble with Gwyllim, it’s highly likely that the root causes of the problem will include Gwyllim’s fear of being friendless. By excluding Paddy he believes, naively, that he is insuring himself against being at the bottom of the pecking order. I wonder what would happen if first thing in the morning after an incident between Gwyllim and Paddy, Paddy were to rush up to Gwyllim full of warmth and enthusiasm and ask Gwyllim to come join him in some activity or game. I imagine Gwyllim might be quite disconcerted and might also realise Paddy is a potential ally rather than a rival.


I also think it’s worth teaching your children how to be interesting conversationalists. Face it, some kids, like some adults, are boring. Some are excruciatingly boring. Not every thought that pops into their heads needs to be communicated immediately to everyone within earshot. Not every detail of their lives is of absorbing interest to everyone. Young people need to learn to limit the number of `I’ statements they make each day. You need to encourage this at home, because if children don’t do it at home they won’t do it at school.


Dale Carnegie’s famous book `How to Win Friends and Influence People’, published in the 1950’s, had a section called `How to Make People Like You’. These were his six suggestions, which I’ve abridged here:


1 – Be genuinely interested in other people. People love to talk about themselves, their lives, their hobbies, their families, their passions, etc… When you become interested in people, ask questions and allow them to talk, they will love you for it. Focus on being interested, not interesting.


2 – Smile


3 – Remember and use people’s names.


4 — Be a good listener. Listening is an active process. It is much more than being silent. It involves empathy, which is to walk in someone’s shoes, and understanding, which is the ability to relate without judging or fixing.


5 — Talk to people in terms of their interests.


At this point Carnegie says: `If you have paid attention to the first five ways to make people like you, you are probably noticing a trend. Each of the points is focused on the other person.’ True to form, his last point is:


6 — Make people feel important, but do it sincerely.


The key is to make sure you do it sincerely. Your motives must be pure. This is not about giving to get, it is about giving because you care.


As a boy scout I was taught to leave a campsite better than (it was) before I got there. I think the same principle applies to people.


Leave every person better for having met you.


I particularly like his last statement, and, the earlier one: `Focus on being interested, not interesting.’


Finally, in dealing with the issues your son or daughter brings home from school, it might be worthwhile for you to check on the status of your own mental health. If you are experiencing mental health difficulties you need to be sure that you are responding rationally to your children’s issues and giving balanced, positive, helpful advice. Parents with mental health issues often cause us more difficulties than children with mental health issues. Recently I was reading a 1944 history of the Macmillan UK publishing company, written by Charles Morgan. In writing about the company’s “readers” – the people who assess the suitability of manuscripts for publication – Morgan criticised one director of the company as lacking “the intuition which might have enabled him to know when a reader had run into a groove of prejudice.” He adds “There are in existence opinions by Mowbray Morris written with the violence that men do not use except subconsciously in defence of a closed mind…”


“The violence that men do not use except subconsciously in defence of a closed mind…” We are, probably like all teachers in the Western world, confronted by that kind of violence from parents with a frequency that might surprise some of you – and of course, not just from men.