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It Takes a Whole Village to Raise a Child

Adult and child hands
Adult and child hands

Image: www.mtdeafblind.ruralinstitute.umt.edu

I sat in on a school leaving assembly yesterday and watched Year 6 children troop out for the last time before they left for the summer – ready to start secondary school in September.

I say ‘ready’, but I could name at least half a dozen boys and not a few girls from one class of thirty children who are far from ready to leave the security of primary school.

Transition from primary to secondary school seems to be one of our rites of passage in the UK. Children are hauled through Year 6, undergoing immense pressure to get that magical ‘Level 4’ in their SATs tests and then bundled out of the door to start Year 7. Sounds familiar?

 

Confident Individuals?

Part of the problem with our education system is the very narrow expectations we have of our children: like the Victorians, we imagine that out children have to develop a prescribed set of skills in order to become ’employable’, but the skills we are neglecting are the very ones that ensure the children are able to function as, in the words of Mick Waters, ‘confident individuals, successful learners and responsible citizens’. I’m not sure that our curriculum actually addresses any one of those aspects, although I have come across schools that are making a resolute effort to do so with the limited freedom they have.

A friend of mine runs a nurture unit in a primary school and I wish there was one in every primary school in the country: children who have missed out on some essential aspect of their upbringing as young children have the chance to do some ‘catching up’ over a period of weeks in a secure but relaxed and compassionate environment, where the emphasis is on emotional resilience rather than academic knowledge. I came across a similar unit in a school not far from where I live: three children and two staff occupied a space away from the main part of the school. each child was dong something different, with assistance or intervention from an adult where necessary or appropriate. One of the children I spoke to was drawing: line drawings in a style that would have made Whistler proud. I mentioned to the child that he should keep on with his drawing and suggested he look up James Whistler, who started drawing when he was five years old.

What is it that actually stimulates and inspires a child to ‘realise their potential’, to become the person they were meant to be, to aspire to make something of themselves?

 

Significant Adults

My blogging friend, Nicola Marshall, author of ‘The Teacher’s Introduction to Attachment’ recalls a youth leader’s words about adult-pupil ratios. We expect a group of children to refer to their significant adult in say, a school or extra-curricular context. This may be one adult to thirty children in a school, reducing to less than ten children to one adult in an environment such as a youth club. The youth leader in question asserted that we should be looking at a ratio of five adults to very child: that is, every child should have five significant adults in their lives, be they parents, grandparents, teachers, youth leaders or adults in other contexts.

This reminded me of the well-known African proverb:

It takes a whole village to raise a child.

These significant adults play a key role in a child’s life: they are essential role-models who are ‘witnesses’ to the child’s life. Nicola Marshall also refers to Richard Gere’s film, Shall We Dance, in which his screen-wife says,

We all need a witness to our lives, the ups and downs and comings and goings.

Who are the so-called significant adults in the lives of many of our children today? Celebrities? Media personalities? Inappropriate relatives? Certainly not the role-models we would recommend.

To quote Nicola one more time, where she talks of her own adopted children:

Whoever it is, those people will have an influence and impact on a child’s experience of life – they will be the witnesses to that child’s existence. I only wish the adults in my children’s lives understood what a huge help or hinderance they are to my children’s progress. It matters that we remember their names. It matters that we pay attention to their anxieties. It matters that we witness their very existence. How we respond to them is vitally important.

 

See Children for Who They Can Be

Anyone in the teaching profession has probably come across the words of Haim Ginott, author of ‘Between Teacher and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers‘:

I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.

As a teacher who works with children all over the country, often meeting them for the first time, I make no assumptions: I try to see them not for what they are but for who they can be. I find that enormously empowering and, frankly, liberating.

As a child, my significant adults were my parents (being a bloke, my dad in particular), Rosie (one of my youth leaders), my grandpa and a middle-school teacher who, nearly forty years later, I am still in touch with.

Who were your significant adults? And who are you a ‘significant adult’ for?

Thrive

Garden painting
Garden painting

Garden – artist unknown

My dad inspires me.

He has the knack of making a garden come alive and look like a place you want to be in. Even as an octogenarian, he spends hours outdoors tending to nature. And that’s not just in his own garden – he’s often to be found in other people’s gardens as well.

My favourite place in his Cornish garden is the raised patio: it is crazy-paved with a decent-sized pond populated with fish, lilies, frogs (in season) and duckweed. Irregular steps lead down to the lawn and alpines fill the crevices amongst the rockery that borders the patio. Elsewhere in the garden, fruit bushes and ornamental shrubs and  trees adorn the borders.

My dad’s garden thrives.

The same cannot be said about every garden – or, for that matter, every human being.

 

BARELY SURVIVING

Having worked in the education sector for a couple of decades, I have come across countless children who are living a life in which they are barely surviving, let alone thriving. Unfortunately, statistics seem to indicate that large numbers of teachers are also just surviving.

A recent and perhaps deliberately provocative article in The Guardian highlighted a report by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and highlighted the plight of the ‘ghost child’ – ‘the institutionalised infant.., wandering from playground to desk to after-school club without real purpose, nodding off through boredom and fatigue.’ It adds, ‘the ghost child is increasingly likely to be taught by the ghost adult – a teacher grey with fatigue and stress, stuck at school for 10 hours or more a day, wandering from duty to duty in playground, classroom or after-school club.’

Why have we come to this?

 

AIR, WATER and SUNSHINE

Returning to the plants in my dad’s garden, they thrive on sunshine, air and water, which Cornwall has in reasonably generous amounts, especially the latter. All of these are externally provided – drawn from natural resources. What does this look like in the life of a human being? Consider this:

a) Roots draw water up from the ground in which a plant is anchored in and deliver it to the rest of the plant. As human beings, we need  a source of continual refreshment that ‘hydrates our soul’ – and I’m not talking about the alcoholic liquid variety here! For most of us, companionship within our family and close family circles sustains us and provides the emotional resources we need to thrive in or relationships. However, for many adults and, unfortunately, children, acute loneliness due to lack of close family or friendship bonds causes a crippling lack of ‘hydration’, resulting in wilting human beings.

b) Plants respire through tiny holes in their leaves so that they can draw in air. Without air, a plant will simply languish and die. Human beings are designed to thrive but, for many, the opposite experience is true: they languish because they do not have meaning and purpose. This is the ‘air’ that keeps us from languishing. It starts almost from birth as we explore the world and discover our ability to influence outcomes but, if our sphere of influence dies and our sense of worth and dignity goes with it, so does our capacity to thrive.

c) Plants need light – sunshine in particular – and, as you are aware, they turn their leaves to face the the sunshine in order to absorb light energy. Apart from the obvious energy we derive from ingestion of food, we as humans need energising. We need stimulus. We need to be creative. We need to be problem-solvers. Much of this naturally develops through our play experiences as children but we all know that play has changed considerably in recent decades. Educators bewail the fact that children now spend much of their free time indoors – not outdoors with other children exploring, taking risks and developing essential social skills. However, as educators, we can help to correct this through the experiences we give children in school settings – and many nurseries in particular are very good at just that: creating vibrant play spaces for children to develop essential life long skills that energise their creativity.

 

PLAY, PLAY, PLAY

There is plenty of truth in the old maxim attributed to one of my favourite thinkers, Albert Einstein:

Play is the highest form of learning.

He is also recorded as saying,

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

How are we facilitating children’s play effectively in order to develop their imagination –  in order to bring them sunshine?

 

MEANING AND PURPOSE

Margaret Moore from The International Coach Federation writes in her blog post,

A sense of a higher purpose is a potent source of life fuel, especially when times are tough.

She also writes,

One of the most popular songs today (with more than 300 million YouTube visits), Katy Perry’s “Roar” speaks to the power of the human life force to make the world a better place. Katy sings from her jungle perch, “I am a champion and you’re going to hear me roar.”

But she also adds,

The vast majority of us are just surviving or even languishing—far from thriving, certainly not roaring.

 

So, to summarise,

A. Ensure you have a trusted circle of friends and family around you and, if you work with children, ensure they have the same.

B. Explore and discover meaning and purpose in your life and help others do the same.

C. Be creative in your problem-solving – and, above all, play. Then teach others to do the same.

 

THRIVE IN STYLE

I’ll finish with a quote from another of my favourite thinkers, Maya Angelou:

My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

I’ll drink to that…