It’s time to say goodbye to kitchen table school and re-enter the real world. It should be a time for rejoicing. But for many of us, the beginning of term may introduce yet another anxious series of coronavirus contradictions and conflicts. It seems like our kids are gripping their toes on the edge of a high diving board: as they return to school, whether they jump or not, sink or swim, and what we do to help or hinder them are daunting questions for the parents sitting on the spectators’ bench.
In August, I found parallels to prepare me for what September may bring. On holiday, learning took place, despite a different curriculum in an unexpected environment. Whilst camping in Pembrokeshire rather than sailing in Menorca, my daughter was poised on the edge of a high wall above a deep, flooded quarry at a well-known diving spot on the coast. Jumping in was seen as a rite of passage by our friends and their older children, and my daughter wanted to be part of the pack. I waited below, uncertain. It seemed risky. Did I want her to do the jump? I would never, ever do it myself. I could see that her legs were shaking but that there was a steely glint in her eye. What was the best outcome for her? And was I more committed to the right outcome for my daughter, or for myself – because, as many mums will know, my mouth was starting to go dry, even as I waved and smiled at my daughter.
Suddenly, the moment was over. Yep, she jumped. She was hugely proud of herself, taking her place with confidence amongst the older children, as they planned their next moment of adventure on this grey Welsh day at the seaside. Racking up the RYA sailing certificates of holidays past may seem to be the greater achievement, but that jump gave my daughter the same dose of self-esteem as placing her certificates on the mantelpiece. Later that day, Daddy and Daughter had the opportunity to talk about accurately assessing risk. At bedtime, I gently questioned her about how far one might go to be accepted by one’s peers; how much did it matter to be part of the pack? As we talked, our thoughts turned, inevitably, towards school.
So, what reflections of August might I see in September? For many parents, walking our children up the school drive will feel like a risk that still needs further assessment. There is too much uncertainty for some of us to feel sure that our children will be safe and well. But I suggest that our parental risk assessment looks quite different to our children’s perspective, and we would do well to refrain from passing on our anxieties to them. Moving up at the beginning of the new school year is always exciting, so let’s aim to let the kids enjoy the fun and keep our fears to ourselves. Our awareness of our own emotional well-being, and how we manage it, can have a direct impact on our children. It may not be the actual return to school, but how we handle it, that poses most risk.
Returning to the Pack
For our children, the real significance of the return to school is their return to the pack, and its hierarchy, when the tribal characteristics may have changed and the rankings may have shifted according to an unexplainable algorism of teen / tween behaviours. Having been out for so long, the longing to find a footing in the gang – whether that’s a friendship group or a football team – may be all-consuming. Teaching will struggle to be effective until the tribe has re-formed its proportions in a shape that our children recognise and accept. A friend reports a new trend amongst teenagers – the ‘eyebrow slit’ – a definition of the concept of belonging that is at least visible to adults. So many other tween and teen tribal markers, firmly embedded in a youth culture, can be much harder to detect.
As parents, recognising the impact of shifting tribal loyalties on our children is an important aspect of understanding their own uncertainties – and anxieties. Gently probing their day in terms of relationships, quietly assessing their position in the gang rather than their post-lockdown ranking in the classroom, will help us to support our children’s re-entry into real rather than remote learning. Moreover, perhaps we will have an opportunity to encourage our children to be less reliant on the tribe and its dictats. Reminding them of positive home-school and holiday experiences, enjoyed without judgement from their school peers, may help to get our children learning sooner rather than later.
When I walk home from the first school run of this new term, I want to stay positive. I want to remember that my daughter is capable of many things that I am not, that my anxieties need not be hers. I want to praise the little things that make her special when I listen to her recount the stories of her day. I want her to know that she can walk tall. All children have the ability to change the world, many of them aim to do so, and some of them make it happen. When I was growing up, there was a saying in popular culture, that those who forged ahead as adults had attended the kindergarten of real life, the school of hard knocks and the university of having certain things kicked out of you. These children, living through the pandemic and forging ahead in a new world, can add attending kitchen table school into the list. These kids have learnt things that other generations have not. It may be the making of them.