Finding perspective

It is easy to get caught up in all the pressures of life – at work, home and school. Kit Thompson of Unicorn School urges parents to step back and check if there is enough space in their family lives.

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Over the last few years, we have held a series of pupil welfare talks at my school for parents, staff and pupils. Visiting speakers have presented on a variety of topics including ‘helicopter parenting’, ‘inspiring confidence in individuals’, ‘independent minds’ and ‘mindfulness’ as well as bullying, anxiety and online safety. At the heart of all these talks is the welfare of the children.

Many of our visitors have spoken from the heart, with their own life experiences giving them an urgent desire to spread their beliefs to others. Looking around the audiences during these talks, I have regularly witnessed fathers and mothers sitting with tears in their eyes, as the sincerity of the speaker strikes a chord with their own experiences and beliefs. These can be emotional occasions.

We are all very busy people and this busyness can become contagious. We feel the need to keep our children engaged at all times – and so the circle goes on. When I was growing up it was frowned upon to say, ‘I’m bored’. I was told that only boring people get bored. And so, with creativity, risk, a sense of carefreeness and a lot of laughter, my friends and I would go out and make our own fun. Climbing, digging, investigating and scheming, we would develop games and activities that were not organised for us by adults. We would often return with bumps and bruises. The laughter would usually be accompanied by arguments and tears. But we would learn how to live together, play together and also make up together.

Today is clearly a very different time. It is wonderful that today’s children have opportunities to take part in so many supervised activities, but is it at the expense of creative childhood? Do we really have to plan every minute of our child’s day? As parents, we are very busy and so it is possible that by believing we can combine what is best for our child with what fits in most conveniently with our own lives, we may unintentionally compromise our children’s wellbeing and future success.

"There are simple ways to ensure that children have time to enjoy their childhood. It is not always about packing every minute of the day with activities, spending the weekends moving from one club to another, and starting your journey to your holiday destination within minutes of breaking up for school holidays."

There are simple ways to ensure that children have time to enjoy their childhood. It is not always about packing every minute of the day with activities, spending the weekends moving from one club to another, and starting your journey to your holiday destination within minutes of breaking up for school holidays. Some parents are beginning to realise the importance of ‘family time’. They have stopped after-school tutoring; cut back on extra-curricular activities; introduced their children to different challenges; made space for cultural activities – and even changed tack on future schooling for their children. They have realised that happiness and confidence will have longer lasting beneficial effects on their children’s lives than the short termism that we so often get drawn into as the next hurdle approaches.

A child’s time at junior school should be some of the best years of his or her lives. Friendships, security, ambition, opportunities and fun, provide a grounding to their education so that when they move on to senior school at 11 or 13, they have the confidence, resilience and living toolkit to make the transition to the next stage of their lives as seamless as possible.

In today’s world, perhaps more than ever before, we should be raising children with enquiring minds, who can think for themselves and adapt to situations. The employment market when they leave education will be seeking these qualities above and beyond the knowledge-based qualifications that may have been the recipe for success in the past. Schools are developing creative curricula, and classrooms are becoming communities of enquiry, as we recalibrate what makes a first class education.

If this is not supported at home, however, our success will be limited. If every day after school, and every weekend, is filled with organised activities, where will the possibilities for developing creative minds come from? There is nothing wrong with a Thursday ballet class, or a Monday judo lesson, but signing children up to every activity they can – perhaps to fill the day rather than to support the needs of the child – will limit the ability of these children to think for themselves and become adaptable, resilient people. Perhaps the fear of failing their children, and so signing them up for all these extra activities, means that parents are inadvertently doing exactly that: by failing to give them a childhood that enables them to develop the full skillset required for success in the 21st Century.

"We want to give our children the opportunity to reach their potential; to achieve what they are capable of and to work hard in order to raise their levels of achievement. Nevertheless, their welfare must be at the heart of our decision-making and giving them a chance to stop and reflect is vital."

We want to give our children the opportunity to reach their potential; to achieve what they are capable of and to work hard in order to raise their levels of achievement. Nevertheless, their welfare must be at the heart of our decision-making and giving them a chance to stop and reflect is vital. From time to time we shadow pupils during their school day and this really opens our eyes to how busy some of our pupils are, and that is just while they are at school. Some children struggle to fit all their school activities into the day, and it is up to us to recognise when a pupil has so many rehearsals or clubs in break times, that he or she doesn’t actually get any respite from organised activity.

Imagine also if that child gets up early for music practice and, after a full day at school, goes on to swimming club before returning home late with homework still to be done. Imagine doing that every day and adding in two sessions a week with a private tutor and weekends fitting in sports, drama and music. That cannot be sustainable. When do you stop?

All of us have had experiences in our lives that have helped to shape our beliefs in what is important: an illness, a bereavement, overnight success or despair. They all affect us and our approach to parenting and/or teaching. Giving ourselves time to think and reflect upon what really is important in life for our children is fundamental to good parenting. As they get older, so is including them in these conversations and giving them an opportunity to make decisions. We are well intentioned. We love our children and want the very best for them, so surely it makes sense to redirect our energy directly to them; not to their school, their hobby or their next holiday, but to our children themselves. Spend a day at home. Don’t plan anything, just live, and I am sure neither you nor your children will be bored.

Kit Thompson Photo

Kit Thompson is Headmaster of Unicorn School, a co-educational, independent prep school in Kew, Richmond. Unicorn was founded by a group of parents and teachers in 1970 who were inspired to create a school that would educate children while simultaneously encouraging them to flourish creatively and enjoy the process of learning.

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