In an era of helicopter parents, we need to allow children the freedom to look after themselves, writes Timothy Berryman.
A significant challenge I face as a parent and educator is in being brave. I see this as a challenge that I cannot back away from, as if I do there are dire consequences for my children and our school. Often I am faced with what feels like a choice between courage/faith/growth on the one side, and fear/disempowerment on the other.
People who are responsible for children, whether parents or educators, regularly face situations and decisions that stir fear in us. We can reinforce our belief in our children and their abilities or conversely convey to them that we do not consider them able to navigate certain challenges. Can my child walk over to a friend’s house unaccompanied by an adult? Or go to the shops alone? Or is playing in the park alone, or with siblings or friends, an activity that requires an adult presence? Do we allow our children to ride or tram or bus or scoot to school without us? Or do we, through the restrictions we place on our children’s freedoms, convey to them that we consider them less able than their peers, or less able than we were as children?
When responding to a child’s request to expand their world, I think it can be helpful to be aware of the different time frames within which the different costs and benefits arrive. In most situations when we allow our children to expand their world – to do things on their own or figure things out for themselves – there is no immediate growth or burst of empowerment. The benefits emerge over weeks, months and years. When weighed up against our fears of immediate risks, it can be tempting to devalue the potential benefits.
Keeping Fear in Check
We don’t need to reflect for long to consider all the disasters that could befall our children in the park, travelling to school, or going to the shops. However, my observation is that overtime, if we are aware of the cost of going with this fear, and instead keep it in check, we will help to nurture a more empowered child, laying the ground for a more empowered adult. This awareness has helped me to be brave. I find that when I remember to shift my focus to the adult I wish to raise, I gain greater confidence in putting my short-term fears aside, aware that if fear governs my parenting (or principalship) I’ll be contributing to raising a more fearful and disempowered child.
The people we surround ourselves with can also help – the braver the better. I love watching so many of our children getting themselves to school or to their friends’ homes or to cricket training or to the shops, travelling on scooters, bikes and public transport. I appreciate it that so many of you set this example with your own children – it helps me to be brave too. The fact that I had witnessed a seven year old getting themselves to school by tram and adult free meant that my decision to allow my eight-year-old daughter to get a tram to school was so much easier. The path had already been trodden.
My observation with my own children, and for the many children I see who do look after themselves, is that this leads to an increased sense of personal confidence, empowerment, and a secure knowledge of one’s own agency. The growth that comes from doing things for yourself, navigating the world for yourself and looking after yourself, is a time where actions don’t only speak louder than words – it is in fact only the act that counts.
Telling a child that we think that they are able to get themselves to school, but never allowing them to, is experienced by the child as a message that they are unable to do this.
They read our real intention – to protect them from disaster – as a message that they are (for whatever reason) incapable of being responsible for themselves. Irrespective of the verbal message, the lived experience is in the end the only message that is conveyed. Fear is disempowering and leaves little space for personal growth.
I assess my own parenting and school leadership in this light. Am I contributing to my children, our children’s sense of empowerment and acquaintance with their own capacities? I have on a number of occasions been accused of being a neglectful parent – but I did not, and still don’t, think that this accusation was accurate. The reason being that I have assessed my duty of care to my children as providing them with the capacities and self-belief that they’ll need when I’m not around. And that the interim steps in moving along this path required me to on occasion step back and leave them to themselves – knowing that they know that I know that they are able.
My observation as a father and educator is that believing in them and their abilities contributes to them actually being able. Being neglectful can now sometimes mean a failure to hover – the implication that the parent is needed at every moment and at every juncture – the so called ‘helicopter parent’. When the world is full of helicopter parents – when this defines the norm – remembering the long-term consequences of this can sometimes be hard. Not only do we need to be brave – with regards to our own parenting and the freedoms we allow our own children – but we need to stand firm (and hopefully un-frazzled) in our interactions with other parents.
Fear is contagious. But a way in which we can all help each other is to avoid spreading our own anxieties. I am astounded at how many activities, interactions and adventures are scrapped for worries and concerns about possible eventualities that none of us have ever encountered. Why do we so often spread worries and anxieties but so seldom celebrate brave and empowering parenting?
When a friend tells us that her child gets the tram, or is at home alone, or riding his bike over to visit grandma, if we can avoid voicing our own anxieties and instead affirm that demonstration of empowering parenting – if we can celebrate our friend’s bravery – then we instead play a role in moving our cultural mindset toward a more empowering place.
To conclude, I’ll share a small snippet of parenting practice that my parents adopted in the area of bravery. They made a decision that when there was a question whether or not to allow a child to do something, the braver position of the two parents would prevail! And it was understood that if or when something went wrong, then there were no repercussions for the person in the braver position. I think that that is a great mantra for life. Let the braver position prevail!
Principal, Fitzroy Community School
This originally appeared as a Principal’s Blog and was also Mr Berryman’s end-of-year address to the school.
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