May 19, 2021
The Wisdom of Children
By Dr Kathy Weston
Last weekend, I decided to ‘try out’ some of my transition resources (resources to support children moving from primary to secondary school) on the potentially perfect recipient; the 10 year old son of a friend who is heading off to big school in September.
I wanted to ask him about what schools, teachers and parents need to know to support children through transition. I have to confess, I initiated the chat thinking I had nothing much to learn, having done lots of talks on the theme of transition for numerous years.
We had a little chat, I ran some resource ideas past him and then asked him what his thoughts were. As we trundled through a list of ‘things children might be worried about,’ I was expecting to hear him refer to ‘normal’ wobbles about moving to a new school, such as not knowing one’s way around, concerns about making new friends or worries about being able to cope with the volume of homework.
His answers were far more profound and stirring than that. “Will I be able to be me?”, he asked with deep concern. “Or, will I have to pretend to be someone else?”. Yes, he was worried about getting lost, but on a much more existential level. He (rightly) worried that entry to secondary school might necessarily demand a degree of ‘impression management’ and that ‘presentation of self’ could feel onerous and painfully inauthentic.
His comments underlined both how sensitive and articulate children can be, and the fact that transition is always about one thing: identity. Any big change in our lives (volitional or not) demands a period of recalibration for the self. My little friend was merely anticipating that process. He knew it was coming, and it felt scary.
The fascinating thing about entry to secondary school is that it coincides with adolescence (a span of time which has traditionally been considered one of existential crisis anyway!); a time of self-discovery, self-expression and navigation of what can be acute peer pressure.
Alongside that, it seems to be the ‘norm’ to buy a child a phone at this pivotal point. Often, this point also marks children’s entry into the world of social media; both the friend and foe of tweens and teens. At once, it can accelerate social connection at a speed unknown to any other generation. At its worst, it can catapult children into a new, digital sphere that has its own unique operational rules, risks and threats to resilience.
You can see why worrying about ‘normal things’ may come quite far down the list for this generation of new entrants. Children have to navigate a matrix of potential assaults on their sense of self. Emerging on the other side with their self-esteem, social and personal identity intact can be a challenge. What can we do? Firstly, we need to be mindful of how acutely sensitive children can be to change. Secondly, we need to park all of our assumptions and be open-minded when we sit down to talk with our children.
Identity will always have to be negotiated throughout life, but we can help by giving our children a secure base from which to embark on their journey of self-discovery. We do so by providing a stable and loving home life, making them feel valued, loved and liked and showing that we believe in them. No matter what happens in life, loving parenting, familiarity, routine and consistency within family life are psychological and social anchors.
As children move into the teen years, acceptance by peers becomes a key social driver, and this means that our parenting needs to evolve to reflect this shift. We can help our teens by talking about scenarios ahead of time.
‘What would you do if?’ questions can kick-start many helpful conversations. Practising social scripts can be incredibly useful too as we all know that just telling a bully off won’t work and may be socially ostracising. We must be realistic and acknowledge how tough it can be for children.
Taking time to think situations through, considering potential outcomes and optimal strategies, is at the heart of parenting teens, and they need time to experiment with different approaches within family life. We are there to scaffold some of their thinking, make helpful suggestions and ultimately support them as they navigate the maze of peer-to peer interaction.
We would do well to remember how wise our children are, how much they have to offer in these conversations and give them the message that we believe in their capacity to problem-solve. We need to be empathetic and understand how scary it can feel to simply ‘be oneself’, whilst keeping a careful eye on how others respond to that brave step.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
I’d urge Tooled Up parents with children about to move to secondary school to listen to our fascinating new interview with Professor Robin Banerjee, which focuses on transition and social identity. A new collection of practical resources to help children (and parents) move smoothly from primary to secondary school and work through any wobbles, is in the Tooled Up Library now. Simply search our ‘Transition’ category to access them.
Our list of topical podcasts is growing – we’ve now interviewed over 70 experts. Last week, we spoke with Dr Dasha Nicholls, a national expert on eating disorders, who discussed a significant rise in referrals for clinical treatment and Dr Fiona Vera-Gray, who talked about the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ movement, harassment of girls and teenage relationships. Check them out in the library now.