October 19, 2022
By Dr Kathy Weston
I am writing this newsletter from a place of fatigue, but also elation that I have just managed to survive three days with ten teen boys in a foreign country. More importantly, they survived! When easyJet asked the question about ‘purpose’ of the trip, I was tempted to scribe ‘to keep 10 children injury free and entertained’.
Parenting two teen boys, as I do, is not equivalent to minding ten. This may seem a very obvious fact, but the skills and parenting style optimal for raising two children broadly evaporates when dealing with a large group. I have a newfound deep respect for anyone out there who teaches whole classes of teens, leads outdoor expeditions with young adults, staffs birthday parties, deals with large groups in restaurants, or does anything that involves administrative responsibility and paperwork for more than a few children.
Prior to the trip I had read a favourite blog about the emotional labour required to be in loco parentis and the oft-perilous legal ramifications for those working with children in an official capacity. But I now possess a newfound, personal understanding of that term.
First of all, let’s talk about the administration. Now, I am not the most organised of creatures, but when you have the lives and high expectations of multiple teens in your hands, you spend half your life checking and double-checking every detail. You lose sleep, wake up thinking about middle names, birth dates, tickets, every single worst case scenario, and how you might manage it if one, just one, of the group gets injured, misses home or forgets anything (spoiler alert: one of them did).
The relief I felt when we all got through border control into a foreign country was equivalent to passing my doctoral viva. The happiness I felt when we got through a day at the beach without any injuries or accidental drownings was astounding. I am bedraggled and emotionally drained from being in a state of hyper-vigilance for three days. So, was it worth it?
Retrospection and reflection breed resilience, so what have I learned from my experience? First of all, I discovered that I was capable (albeit helped by a very dear friend) to manage that much admin and that many children all at once! Secondly, I found that so much can be gained from spending time with teens in this capacity. It’s a unique experience to bear witness to teens’ social world, formed of intangible yet established social rules, socially constructed behavioural norms, rich and highly entertaining banter, and boundless, physical play.
“Why so many shoes?”, a lady asked at the beach. “Are they a basketball team? Are you a coach?” The comments and the public scrutiny that you receive when out and about with a large group of boys is relentless and intriguing. People stare in the street. Some step anxiously to the side. Others wink at you in solidarity, pat you on the shoulder, wish you good luck and tell you how wonderful boys are. And wonderful is what they are.
I felt a moment of intense, maternal pride when a member of the public watching them dig a large hole in the sand commented on “how lovely they are!”. When teen boys are together, they are boisterous, physical, cheeky, lost in the momentum, energy and dynamics of the group. Their joy in being together is palpable and they make a lot of noise with zero consideration for the rest of humanity. Because they are so physically imposing (many of them over six foot tall, but still fifteen), they look like grown men, but act like children (which they are). The disparity between height and maturity, combined with society’s ‘moral panic’ when it comes to large groups of boys in public spaces, means they attract more scrutiny than most, and some of it is utterly unwarranted.
Hanging out, laughing raucously and engaging in play (ok, they made a giant pyramid of bodies in the garden where we were staying) attracted two security guards concerned about what they were doing. Their laughter in the pool attracted residents’ complaints and, several times, I had to explain that these are children, enjoying themselves, being themselves and living their life to the fullest. I wanted to tell onlookers that, in the post-covid world, boisterous play is an absolute god-send, children being together and engaging in unregulated play is essential and that adventure is the perfect antidote to lockdown. Watching them gather together over a rockpool to look for a fish (which they found in a moment of sheer joy) made the entire trip worth it. Yes, they played games on their phones at the end of the day like their lives depended on it, but they also engaged in nature, swam in the sea, invented games, swung on swings, slid down slides and engaged in the sort of rough and tumble that couldn’t be curtailed or stopped, even if you wanted to. They were doing everything that children should do and deserve to do.
In loco parentis was a scary, but also a privileged position to be in. I was witness to the kindness of boys, the sharing, the caring, the camaraderie, the good humour, the emotional and physical resilience demonstrated amid the friendly banter.
Teen boys often get bad press, but this experience made me want to shout to the world, “It is ok, they are ok! They are just playing. Please don’t rush to tell them off!”. By the end of the trip, I had got to know each boy in a way that a teacher might, and had found the balance between quasi-mum and quasi-group leader. I felt genuine affection and appreciation for each one of them and a tug at the heart-strings when we parted ways. I felt how teachers might feel at the end of a school trip; relieved, sad, amused, happy, appreciative and proud.
Being on the other side of the fence, where teachers might be, means I will always welcome the chance for my boys to go on a school trip. I will always cheer on those staff, acknowledge how hard the job of minding other people’s children is and express gratitude for their endeavour. The truth is, as scary as it might be to send our children on trips abroad, it’s also scary for those looking after them and their professionalism and expertise should be applauded.
Anything worth doing comes with risk and, if possible, we should all be seizing any and all opportunities for our children to explore the world, friendships, new things, new places and experiences.
As the cost of living crisis looms for families, and school budgets are squeezed, we might have to work harder within family life to increase children’s access to adventure. It’s not always about organising big trips abroad. It’s more about providing the social and physical architecture within which children can explore, invent, imagine and interact. A climbing frame in a park, trees to climb, fields to run across, swings on tree trunks, rain to run in, dance-offs in the kitchen, trips into nearby towns on the bus or even to grandpa’s house – it all adds up, and contributes to children and young people’s sense of self in the world and capacity for joy. The latter keeps our children feeling happy and healthy.
One of the things you have to audit when you take a large group abroad are allergies. Happily however, I had been lucky enough to host the utterly brilliant Professor Adam Fox for a Tooled Up Education webinar on childhood allergies prior to our departure.
By the end of my hour with Professor Fox, I knew which allergy myths need to be urgently debunked and why nose inhalers can be beneficial in reducing hay fever. It was fantastic and renewed my passion for expertise, experts and evidence-based approaches.
Did you know that stress won’t give you allergies, but it can make existing allergies worse? Or that if someone in your household is allergic to cats, but you are a committed feline-lover, you can actually buy a certain cat food that reduces the allergenicity of your pet? Did you know that for children with peanut allergies, a recently licensed product can now be prescribed and administered which is used to desensitise them, meaning that a severe reaction becomes much less likely?
We also discovered that hay fever can have a significant impact on concentration, tiredness and exam performance. One study which compared young people’s results in Christmas mocks with summer exams found that those with hay fever were 50% more likely to drop a grade in the summer. The detrimental impact was even more likely when young people were treated with sleep-inducing antihistamines. Want Professor Fox’s advice? If your child’s hay fever is severe, seek medical advice, and if nasal sprays and non-sleepy antihistamines don’t help, find out about desensitisation!
There won’t be a Wednesday Wisdom next week due to the half term holiday. I wish everyone a great break and I’ll see you in November.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
The importance of play for children’s development and mental health really can’t be overestimated. Tooled Up subscribers who want to know more can find a range of resources on this topic in the library. You might also like to listen to our podcast interview with former researcher of the month, Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden, who describes the fundamental role of fun in the development of children’s self-concept and self-esteem. Her research shows that, far from being a frivolous extra, fun is at the very core of what matters to young people most!
If you’d like some quick ideas on how to build resilience in your teen boys (and girls), take a look at our 50 top tips. If your teens are struggling to fit fun into a busy schedule over half term (or don’t want to make time away from play to complete their homework), why not nudge them to use our holiday planner?
Finally, a quick reminder that we upload recordings of all our webinars to the library, normally with accompanying notes. Simply browse our resources and select webinar as a resource type to view them all. Recent additions include Professor Adam Fox on allergies and Jessica Chivers who talks us through making a confident return to work after long breaks.