Principal’s Insights 2012

Noember 2 2012 - “TOO SAFE FOR THEIR OWN GOOD - how risk and responsibility help teens thrive”

For 12 years of my schooling I walked to and from school, accompanied only by friends. I crossed relatively busy suburban streets, wore a rain coat in thunderstorms and genuinely enjoyed the opportunity to debrief the day with Alison or Andree or Louise or Nanette. I didn’t carry a phone, just a bag of text books that grew gradually heavier as I moved up the schooling ranks. My mother didn’t know when to expect me home because conversations could be unpredictable in length; she just knew that I would be home, eventually.

There didn’t seem to be the same level of urgency or immediacy about communication to and from home. Nostalgically, I look back on that time as precious, because there was time. My family’s one black telephone sat perched on our bookshelf in the lounge room and conversations were available to all listening ears. We had one typewriter (quite novel really) and one television - also black and white. It sounds like the olden days, doesn’t it!

Yet, to me there is something enticing about the freedom that I had to make decisions, the responsibility that I had to get to and from school myself - from the age of five. Small problems were often solved in our lengthy daily conversation. Times tables were learned, spelling tested and exam preparation often occurred on those rambling twenty to thirty minute meanderings, enroute school. Somehow that time gave perspective; it gave privacy and created difference between the school space and the home space. Life had boundaries and distinctions.

The twenty-first century is a different time and place. I can skype my daughter in London daily, if I so choose (I don’t). I can text my son before he walks into an exam and he can text me as he exits, if I so choose (I don’t). I can download a book that is recommended during a conference presentation as the presenter speaks, I can buy on-line at midnight and teleconference with colleagues across the globe. I am connected, wired and attached in a way I never was, as an adolescent. It has its benefits and its pitfalls - and I’m not sure that I can ever re-gather that feeling of space and place and time, again.

Author Michael Ungar’s book ‘Too Safe For Their Own Good - how risk and responsibility help teens thrive’ provides a pertinent reminder that too much connectivity and too much protection may restrict our children’s opportunity to grow, develop and thrive. Our over-interest, the immediacy of our communication and our efforts to bubble wrap cannot protect our children from risk itself. In fact, to do so is to restrict them from healthy opportunities for growth and psychological development. “Our children need families and communities who are watching, but not oversimplifying, their lives.” (Ungar, 2007, p.105).

Ungar reminds that children who have been properly encouraged, given lots of support and who take calculated risks are often the most successful in their adult lives - they:

  • Are more likely to trust their own judgement
  • Understand the consequences of their actions
  • Have learned to respect the capacities of others and themselves (Ungar, 2007, p. 41)

To take risks is a normal, healthy part of children’s growth and development. Literature around resilience points to the importance of adversity (be it real or constructed) to elicit plasticity of response or adaptation to change. Ungar’s book reminded me of the importance of taking a step back, looking for healthy risk-taking habits that provide opportunity for problem solving and the development of resilience. Perhaps we would all benefit from occasionally abandoning our mobile phones, walking more often, and allowing spaces and places for our children to grow into thriving, independent and competent individuals who have learned to fail, to lose, to miss out, and to retain dignity and perspective in the process.

Ungar, M. (2007. Too Safe For Their Own Good - how risk and responsibility help teens thrive. Australia: Allen & Unwin.

A recent Victorian study (de Zwart et al 2011) found that 95% of Victorian students in Years 7 - 10 used social networking sites, yet nearly 30% did not consider social networking held any risks.

Despite this, 72% indicated that they had received unwelcome or unpleasant contact by strangers. (Independence, Vol 37 no 2 October 2012, page 61).

October 2012 - Bike Safety… Sun Safety… Swim Safety… Cybersafety
Cybersafety ultimately depends on an individual’s behaviours - not simply on a set of school policies or family rules.

The holidays saw me at a conference, sitting in a crowded room, listening to yet another expert on cyber safety. I admit to some restlessness. An inclination to think - I have heard this all before. And I have. And I need to - because cyber safety is a constant consideration for each one of us. Judith Slocombe presented contemporary research which indicates the fundamental importance of supporting respectful cyber behaviour. From her work with the Allanah and Madeline Foundation, Judith seeks to support a noble but core right of all children: “The right to a safe and happy childhood.” The pending question for me, was - Who is responsible for this safe and happy childhood? The school? The parent? The individual? All three, I believe.

As parents we are deeply aware of the way in which our children communicate. Probably far more attuned to their communication habits, than to our own. We expect respect. (Hopefully) we model respect in the way we communicate, after all we are their most influential teachers, aren't we? At times we rephrase their sentences, reword their demands and offer feedback. We find too, that in the twenty first century there is some reciprocity, our children are inclined to offer us feedback too.

How does this philosophy extend to their cyber communication? Do you offer feedback, expect respectful communication? Do you rephrase their words when they are disrespectful, do you put guidelines in place, or, do you shrug your shoulders and say: "it's not my world, so I just leave her to it." Are you convinced that she is working on her English assignment at midnight and leave her to her computer? Do you have unfiltered access to wifi, unlimited internet or do you pay your daughter’s mobile phone bill without checking its usage?

We were reminded at the session with Judith Slocombe that as parents we think, discuss and enact strategies related to bike safety, road safety and pool safety and yet we don't always extend that same care to cyber safety. Sometimes we step back timidly. We excuse ourselves by saying it’s their time, their technological world, their choice. We accept their advice that they HAVE to have unlimited access to their laptop so that they can study, or write assignments, that they would be socially immobile without their mobile phone. The presenter urged us not to be complacent.

Whilst she does not expect us to control the cyber world she does expect us to be interested, engaged and not too ready to accept the truth (often partial or filtered) of our children when they insist that they are studying, or completing their homework. She does expect us to set parameters and to support the school in expecting respect both in person and in the cyber world. I am surprised when parents are disinterested in their daughter’s cyberactivity, or want to abrogate responsibility entirely to the school.

I rejoice in conversations with parents who share the concerns, demonstrate active interest in their daughter’s communication whether ‘real’ or ‘cyber’, and who believe fundamentally in respectful behaviour. I encourage the grappling with the hows, the active efforts to insist on the polite - on or off line. Whilst we ultimately want our girls to self-regulate their behaviour, we also need to remember the power of our own modelling of behaviours - including clear expectations about respect. Michael Carr-Greg reminds us that “we have an obligation to make healthy choices that will guide our daughters, to make them feel safe, valued and trusted and, above all, that you know where they are, who they are with and what they are doing. They need boundaries and rules if they are to learn right from wrong.”

Next time you are dismissive about your daughter’s cyber habits, think again - just like bike safety, sun safety and swim safety - there is a place for cyber safety and a responsibility that we all bear in modelling, expecting and reinforcing respectful communication; both in the real, and in the virtual world. Ultimately, self-regulation lies at the crux - since on-line behaviours begin and end with the individual. What is happening, when no-one else is in the room?

References

Slocombe, M (2012) Children’s Well-being and Safety. Address given at the Australian Boarding Schools Conference. Gold Coast. October.

Towns, S. (2012) WEB 2.0: A Cultural Revolution. Independence. volume 37 no 2 October

September 2012 - On The Sideline
I have had the pleasure of watching some Fairholme Netballers in action over the past two weekends. The process of standing on the sideline has both its merits and its disadvantages, doesn’t it? I find myself pre-empting umpires’ decisions and forgetting that onlookers invariably have a different picture from those in the thick of the action. It is a salutary lesson for me to remember, when I do find myself making too many calls about the rules, that it is not me with the whistle in my hand.

Parenting too falls into the realm of onlooking at times, doesn’t it? I farewelled my daughter at the Brisbane Airport a few weeks ago, as she headed for London on a two-year working visa, with all the optimism of a 22 year old. I had that shattering feeling of having to stand back and watch her go, knowing that I am an onlooker, not a direct participant in what unfolds for her in London. One has to have faith that my husband and I have done our job well enough as parents… It’s not always so easy to take that step back onto the edge, the edge that sometimes feels like a precipice.

I think especially of our Year 12 parents at this time of the year as they traverse the sideline, supporting a daughter ready to take on the world. Last week many of our Year 12s completed the QCS tests and many mothers joined their daughters at the break between exams with the provision of a beautiful spread of food. In many ways these mums joined their daughters from the sideline - as their greatest supporters and greatest fans but also as onlookers. It can be both a pleasure and a torment to be a bystander.

Perhaps yours is a daughter who is overconfident, whose goals are too lofty but she has successfully sold them to you anyway, or perhaps your daughter is one who feels adrift and directionless, or perhaps your daughter may be organised, focused and have it all ‘under control’, or maybe none of the above. Nonetheless it is a time of high anticipation, often high anxiety, and it is a time of preparing to let go, to stand enthusiastically on the sideline - with knowledge of the rules, but without a whistle in hand.

Nancy Samalin, US Parent Educator and author of ‘Love and Anger: The Parental Dilemma’, says this:

It isn’t easy to see the formerly loving child who once curled in our laps turn into a surly stranger who cannot spare us a kind word. One mother was taken aback when she called, as her daughter was going out the door, “Have a good time,” and her daughter angrily replied, “Stop telling me what to do.”

As I read this I muse on the oft-quoted words of King Solomon: “This too shall pass.” They are the words we had engraved on our daughter’s silver cuff, a parting gift for her before she headed overseas, and a reminder that we must savour the best - it too shall pass, and endure the worst - it too shall pass.

Footnote…
I report literally and not metaphorically that it was a thrill to watch three grand finals on Saturday - two wins and a loss in the mix. I am reminded (albeit from the sideline) that grand finals provide wonderful learning opportunities about focus, commitment, sportsmanship and the graciousness required in winning or losing. Thank you to all of the parents who spend so many Saturdays on the sideline watching enthusiastically, or to those boarder parents who patiently listen to phone conversation deconstruction of games throughout the season. Your presence matters, as does your interest, especially from the sideline where we so often find ourselves as parents.

August 2012 - THe Power Of Mistakes… seeking excellence rather than perfection for our children

‘I have always struggled to achieve excellence. One thing that cycling taught me is that if you achieve something without a struggle, it’s not going to be satisfying.’ Greg LeMond

On Thursday night I had the privilege of speaking with a group of Junior school parents about some of the joys and challenges of parenting in the 21st century - at a time where there may well be too much emphasis on perfection, rather than the seeking of excellence. I enjoyed the depth of discussion that spring boarded from this topic, and thought it may be relevant to share a few thoughts.

Perfection can be defined as the absence of mistakes, something measurable and quantifiable. Perfectionism is black and white with no grey area. Anything other than perfection is failure. Perfectionist children are never satisfied with almost or a good effort. If they are not the best, don’t achieve 100%, or can’t solve a problem effortlessly and immediately, then their all-or-nothing thinking dictates that they are stupid, or worthless. Cognitive psychologist Carol Dweck calls this a fixed mindset. Such a fixed mindset can lead to unrealistic expectations, underachievement and a torrid sense of failure. Often the perfectionist avoids challenges in order to minimise risk of ‘failure’.

Sadly as parents we too can suffer from fixed mindset behaviours, and thus project expectations of perfectionism onto our children. We don’t tolerate errors, we expect the best, we abhor sloppiness and perhaps forget, that, in the midst of mistakes often exists a wealth of learning opportunities. Consider that academic study, at its highest level, is a journey of mistake-making, frustration, struggle and… learning.

Perhaps as parents we need to remember that interior parent monologue from time to time that says - be mindful of the fine line between supporting your child’s dependence and her independence, you cannot remove all obstacles, you cannot smooth all pathways, you cannot ensure her A grade success in everything she does. You cannot win the race or the prize for her every time she attempts something and you may can cause harm when you attempt to do so. Your role is to model mistake-making, risk-taking and learning!

In writing about education, learning, and the nature of risk - Professor Erica McWilliam would caution that we are sanitising our learning world by removing risk. She would argue that the best learning is in fact, risky! In order to take risks, we must be prepared for setbacks and that to face those, we need the ability to try things that fall over, that confuse us and don’t work out the way we planned. According to McWilliam to learn, therefore, requires a disposition to social engagement with trial and error - to learn collectively and individually from things that go pear-shaped. Indeed, most scientific breakthroughs come not from what went right in experiments but what went wrong. To be a learner, therefore, is to expect to be confused, to try and not succeed, to take risks, to engage with others in head-scratching and not knowing (McWilliam, 2005).

Consider this…
Albert Einstein - could not talk until the age of four. He did not learn to read until he was nine. His teachers considered him slow, unsociable and a dreamer. He failed the entrance examinations to college but finally passed the after an additional year of preparation.

Steve Wozniak is the inventor of the Apple Computer. His mother said of him: ‘I wish he would quit fooling around in that garage and get a real job.’

Hans Christian Anderson - had difficulty in reading and writing.

Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times (but he also hit 714 home runs).

None were perfect yet they reached excellence in their field. They did so by making mistakes, taking risks, persevering and not giving up… no doubt their parents never imagined they were perfect or excellent even… they gave their children space to become…

To let go when you want to hold on takes utmost generosity and love. Only parents are capable of such painful greatness.

(Haim Ginott: 1969)

How kids learn from mistakes (author unknown)

  • Acknowledge that you don't expect your children to be perfect.
  • Let them know your love is unconditional, regardless of their mistakes or lapses in judgment.
  • Don't rescue children from their mistakes. Instead, help them focus on the solution.
  • Provide examples of your own mistakes, the consequences, and how you learned from them.
  • Encourage them to take responsibility for their mistakes and not blame others.
  • Avoid pointing out their past mistakes. Instead, focus on the one at hand.
  • Praise them for their ability to admit their mistakes.
  • Praise them for their efforts and courage to overcome setbacks.
  • Mentor them on how to apologize when their mistakes have hurt others.
  • Help them look at the good side of getting things wrong!

Download Power Point Presentation from Junior School Parent Evening. (500KB PDF)

Mrs Linda Evans | Principal (and frequent mistake-maker)