If your home is anything like ours, your exhausted kids announce their arrival home from school with a jacket in your face, a pair of shoes flung across the room, and a backpack through a window. Stuff, tears and minor lacerations all over the show.
A normal day.
But then you spot the white corner of a school notice sticking from a school bag, and suddenly it’s not just a normal day. Parent-teacher interview times have been arranged. Your cheeks flush. Beads of sweat form above your eyes. Terror fills your heart, but you fight back control over dropping into the fetal position in front of your kids [again].
Maybe your children are angels and you don’t sweat the teacher catchups. Lucky you. But our most recent parent-teacher chat has become a catalyst for re-considering the way we view our children’s education and, in fact, lives – and in 10 more days, we’ll be excusing them from school permanently.
Hey School – It’s Not Me, It’s You
For us, parent-teacher interviews have always been a game of two halves. One spent basking in glowing reports of our eldest child, who excels in the schooling paradigm, the other being scolded, coached and generally grumped at by the teacher of our second child, who is a wonderful, bright, energetic boy but an absolutely awful match for school.
Across three schools, five teachers, and two countries, the results have been the same – for both kids – every time. One is always a joy, the other a problem. Too noisy, lacking focus, a distraction to others, doesn’t listen, can’t keep up…immature.
For a long time we tried to shape our son to fit. To ‘fix’ him. We took onboard feedback from various teachers. We demanded immediate obedience. We clamped down on anything too physical inside our home. We relentlessly shushed his noise. We pushed him to practice his writing, his school reading books, to complete his homework each night. We tried to create an environment of quiet obedience.
Our home adopted the paradigm of a classroom, us the teachers. No learning was happening, though – just a whole lot of attempted behaviour shaping, arguments, frustration, timeouts, tears (from us as much as him)…it was exhausting. We saw exactly what his teacher was seeing – both in his behaviour, and the impact it was having on those around him. We doubled down on demanding obedience, trusting that we’d ‘crack’ the behaviour eventually.
And we watched him disintegrate.
He came home one day, burst into tears on his bedroom floor, and shouted over and over that he “hated himself at school”.
After the shock of hearing those words from our 7-year-old child had subsided, with the help of a bottle of red wine that evening, we reflected on his words.
Hated himself…at school. He knew what was required of him in that environment, knew he was failing to live up to the standards, knew he couldn’t be himself. And because we were trying to set those same standards at home as well, with more and more desperation, he had no release. Our precious 7-year-old boy had that tension between who he was and who others were asking him to be sitting squarely on his shoulders, and it was crushing him.
He clearly saw and understood what his teachers, principals and – for shame – his parents hadn’t:
To make it through school successfully he’d have to become someone he wasn’t. He’d need to chop off some edges so he’d fit in the hole.
And so we realised our son wasn’t a problem to be fixed, to be changed. The problem was the classroom, and it was suddenly so obvious that the solution was to just stop going. He would never be comfortable in a quiet, obedience-oriented, mostly sedentary environment for six and a half hours a day, five days a week, for 13 years. He was screaming inside and had no idea how to express it.
We took the foot off the pedal at home. We made noise with him. We hung out at the park where he’d run, cartwheel, forward roll, play fight with sticks and dance for hours. We let him dismantle stuff (turns out, he can put things back together again). We dropped homework. If he was fully engaged in something and we noticed he’d left his towel lying on the floor, we – *gasp* – just let him carry on.
Back at the teacher-parent catchup, she told us she was pleased with his general academic progress but was concerned about his reading comprehension. He read the words but didn’t seem to have a good grasp of the story they were telling when tested. The first night we started relaxing as a family – during which we discussed the option, openly, of alternative forms of education while watching a spark return to his eyes – he picked up George’s Marvellous Medicine. At 9pm that night, I gently removed the mostly-read open book from his sleeping grasp. Over breakfast the next morning he excitedly told us all about George, his awful grandma, the incredible concoction the boy had brewed up, and wondered aloud whether the crane they used to remove her from the roof was the same kind of one they’re building an apartment with on the corner of our street.
I don’t think we’ll stress too much about his reading comprehension.
All this got us thinking about our eldest son, of course. Turns out he’s in cruise mode – his teachers have always been pleased with his attitude and progress, and he’s been happy enough (outside the normal schoolyard bullying we all seem to accept as part of life), but he’s actually just ticking boxes. Kids have a way of rising or dropping to whatever benchmark is set for them. What would he do differently with his time, if he had the choice? What would his benchmark be if he could set it?
“I’d be a Youtuber – plan out awesome stuff to do in Terraria, play and record it, and then do some really cool editing. My favourite Youtubers do lots of cool editing. I’d write funny scripts for them, too. I never really have time for that after school. I also reaaaaaally want to make videos playing a game that I’ve made, so I’d do lots of Scratch coding. Oh, and I’d be able to snorkel more than just in the weekends, so…I’d do that every day! I really want to explore more reefs, and maybe actually train to do proper diving. You know, with the tanks and everything.”
Right. So let’s just have that part of every day, then. For the purists, I’m confident all that would cover any academic progression measure you threw at it.
In the year 2040 our boys will be hitting their 30s. What will the world look like then? What challenges will we be facing as humans? What will we need people to stand up and fight for?
Big questions to answer, but I’m confident stating one thing – free thinking, expressive, passionate, energetic boundary-pushers will have a huge role to play in tackling those future challenges, and I’m damn sure I’m not going to let that spirit be crushed before my kids even turn ten.