Disclaimer: Yes, there are f-bombs in here. I’ve had enough ad hoc lectures about my use of language this week, so if that’s not your thing let’s hug it out and say our farewells.
School “open days”… They’re up there with going to the dry cleaners, waiting for a prescription on pension day or shopping for a new toaster – all necessary yet slightly dull chores that you tend to coast through on autopilot whilst rocking an artificial expression of serenity that politely conceals your boredom.
I was in the classroom today, looking through my son’s work books and attempting to decipher the drunken hieroglyphics that pass for six year-old handwriting. My kid is in Year One, so think pages and pages of laboured compositions like “On the weekend I played Lego and got to level 14 in Monster Legends on the iPad”.
(Honestly, read through 35 straight pages of that shit and you’ll cringe at how largely the iPad features in your kid’s life, like you never actually go anywhere or do anything except gaffa tape his face to an internet-enabled device all weekend).
Anyway, while all this was happening I noticed how dodgy his handwriting was. In between mouthing the obligatory “oohs” and vaguely admiring “aahs” all I could think was: “Jesus, this is messy as fuck. What the hell, kid?”
My son stepped out to get something from his bag so I took the opportunity to sidle over to my friend and mutter “Can I take a quick look at your daughter’s book? A’s writing is terrible…”
And then, faster than you could say “THERE’S A PARENT HERE WHO IS MILDLY DISAPPROVING OF THEIR CHILD!!” (that’s kind of long but you get my point), one of his teachers cut me off with this jaunty corrective:
“We don’t say their work is terrible, we say that it can be improved and that with a little bit of effort blah blah blah hordes of resplendent silver unicorns will descend from the clouds to gently coax their pencil into perfectly formed fonts, before pooping out an entire roll of smiley-face reward stickers and locking horns in a group hug, so these kids always know that their mediocre attempts at doing totally average things are truly validated from the heart.”
To be honest, I’d kind of lost track about halfway through, because I was too busy processing the shock of realising that my son’s teacher was schooling me for failing to reframe my son’s shithouse attempts at handwriting in a positive enough light.
I mean, FFS I’d waited for my son to be out of the room before I made the comment and I’d merely said that his handwriting was “terrible”. Because it WAS terrible. It was rushed and careless. Illegible.
I didn’t say that my six year old was a hopeless loser who was destined to spend the rest of his life drinking away the pain of failed spelling bees. Nor did I say that his hideous handwriting was a stain on our family’s honour, and that my eternal soul would be wearing the shame of it for several millennia. I simply made an offhand comment to the effect that it looked like he was putting in a less-than-stellar effort. And he wasn’t even there to hear it.
I know what positive reframing is and – contrary to what my flair for snark might suggest – I do it all the time with my children. I think it’s super-important, but I save that shit for when they are actually within earshot because frankly, it’s exhausting being the conjurer of butterflies and rainbows all the fucking time.
For the record, this is not a criticism of his teacher, who is fantastic. This is more a muddled reflection on how much the culture of childrearing has changed since our generation, when you could be whacked with a wooden cane on the whim of a sadistic principal or publically shamed for having a learning disability. Stop crying you pissweak little sissy, a bit of pain and humiliation never hurt anybody….
Things have – thankfully – swung the other way but sometimes I wonder whether they’ve swung too far? When did it become taboo to express mild disappointment in your children when you know they can do better? Or to offer a less-than-glowing but realistic appraisal of their efforts? In an age where everyone gets a trophy and class debates no longer have winners or losers, when do kids get to experience icky feelings like disappointment, ambivalence, defeat, failure and frustration?
The bottom line is that my son is capable of better work. I know it. He knows it. His teachers know it. If his work is not up to par it’s generally because he is being careless, silly, lazy or allowing himself to be distracted by the hilarity of his own Category 5 farts, and six months of back-patting and positive spin hasn’t motivated him to do much better.
Do we really place such little faith in the resilience of our children that mildly reproachful comments are off limits now? Surely we do our kids a disservice by holding back on the occasional truth bomb, forever succumbing to our guilt-driven need to lace everything in a sickly sweet coating of confected positivity.
I’m not advocating that we go back to punitive discipline. I mean, it’s a fucking miracle that most of us survived our childhoods to emerge as relatively well-functioning adults, given the previous generation’s penchant for corporal punishment and public shaming. I’m more than happy to keep all of that in the bin where it belongs, but a little bit of hard-nosed pragmatism to balance out all the happy clappy glitter shit would be nice too.
At the very least, we should be able to call our kids out on their crap and demand more from them when they are letting themselves down, without this stifling requirement to always sugar coat everything.
Sometimes we need to be free to say:
Mate, you’re taking the piss. I know you can do better than that and I expect you to do better than that. Sort your fucking shit out.
Of course, I’m paraphrasing here… I would never say that to an actual child. This would be processed through a sophisticated “Things You’re Allowed To Say To Kids in the New Millennium” translation device to remove all the “fucks” and “shits” and whatnot, but the basic message remains the same: it’s not good enough and you know it.
So, in the end that’s exactly what I said:
Mate, this is too messy. I can’t read it, and neither can you. You need to do better.
His sheepish smile made it very clear that he understood. And that he agreed. Sometimes kids just need to hear it straight, without all the bullshit weasel words and ego stroking and endless reassuring. Somewhere in the world a resplendent silver unicorn just died a little inside, but my son came through it all just fine.