If you’re mother or father to a teenager, you may feel you can never get it right. Parents are, by definition, hopelessly out of touch.
Parents get plenty of stick nowadays. If they don’t keep their children in order, they’re accused of being feeble, trying to be their children’s friends. But if they’re tougher and more aspirational, they’re labelled as pushy.
As a head, I find most parents manage to chart quite a successful course between the perils of Scylla and the hazards of Charybdis.
But it’s getting harder for them all the time.
At the same time, the role of teachers is coming under increased scrutiny. What should we do to help pupils navigate the choppy waters of social media, difficult friendships or the effect of non-stop 18th birthday parties? Are we being neglectful if we sail carefully into these areas for fear of being accused of telling parents how to parent? Or is teaching how to deal with anxiety as much a part of the job description as dealing with algebraic equations?
Most of my fellow heads recognise that schools are getting more and more requests from parents for help with social issues, and that’s one reason why the leading independent schools in the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) has taken it upon itself to find out more about what’s going on. Only then, we reason, can we have informed conversations with pupils and parents which help calm the nerves and change behaviours in a positive way.
In our most recent survey of parents, we have discovered those aspects of their children’s lives they most want help with from schools.
Work pressures and exams came high, of course: a huge amount of effort is already going on there. But it’s clear we also need to move on to parental worries about children’s social lives, their relationships, their mental health and the need for a healthy lifestyle. One parent commented that ironically children seem to be conducting their social lives from in isolation from their bedrooms. This inevitably leads to a stronger sense of adult/child disconnection and a need to uncover what is happening in children’s lives in a variety of safe spaces – both classroom and round the kitchen table.
In another survey of 5,000 parents and pupils across a range of state and independent schools, HMC and Digital Awareness UK asked children what they think about their parents’ digital habits, as well as the other way round.
The main things troubling both groups were unsurprising. Children’s biggest worry about being online (and they’re online a lot!) is lack of sleep: parents’ biggest concern about their children being online is the impact on their social skills. Surprisingly, although teachers are deeply anxious about the risks that children face online - grooming, sexting, cyberbullying - parents seem relatively unworried.
Astonishingly, we discovered that a third of children surveyed have asked their parents to stop using their mobile devices - for example, at mealtimes. A paradox emerges: parents are concerned about their kids’ apparent addiction to digital devices, yet set a poor example themselves.
Parents know their job is to act as role models. To walk their talk in the way they demonstrate courtesy, politeness, sensible, moderate and balanced living habits. For the most part, parents still do so.
But the digital revolution has created a new world for which no one has yet written the rules. How should parents model their digital behaviour, so as to instil good habits in the young?
All that and more is being discussed today at HMC’s Spring Conference under the title, Putting ourselves in parents’ shoes: new ways of working between schools and families. As well as getting advice from experts, we will show a new video which we’ll use to reflect back to teenagers what an healthy and unhealthy life online looks like. “Tech Control”, it asks them – control the technology rather than the other way round.
In this new and sometimes terrifying world we need to develop a new way of working with parents. Not a contract: I don’t like those coercive home-school agreements. Rather a, new parent-school pact a real commitment from parents and schools to work together to protect our children, to act uniformly in the behaviours we model and promote, and make sure that between us both education (as provided by schools) and upbringing (what parents do) are consistent.
It’s a challenge: but it’s eminently achievable. And there’s a real will to do it.
Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of the Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School and a former Chairman of HMC.
He Tweets as @bernardtrafford