Lousy parenting advice

Last Sunday Mariella Frostrup answered a letter from a father whose son wanted to drop out of school and become a rock star. He complained:

Our son has given up on study. He has never really enjoyed school. He complains that teachers don’t know how to control classes, feels he learns very little in a day and questions the ritual humiliation he experiences through PE.

The son is described as “intelligent, but also sensitive with a passion for music”. He claims that various rock stars never needed “exam success”, notably Liam Gallagher who only gained 4 GCSEs. His dad complains that he “is rejecting everything about us”, but mostly his dad: “I am academically successful and value education”. Frostrup’s answer is padded out with an awful lot of empathy but the meat of it is that the dad should assert his authority:

Yet I can’t help feeling that asserting a degree of authority is half the battle, even if it’s uncomfortable and, worse, unfashionable. As we’ve edged ever closer to our children in lifestyle, it’s become increasingly difficult to take the authoritarian path, but sometimes “because I say so” really is the answer.

Teenagers who want to be pop stars are truly 10 a penny. I had a friend who was about to fund a rehearsal space for their scholastically errant but musically obsessed child. Despite their daughter’s assertions that she didn’t “have to listen to them” she was entirely reliant on them for a roof over her head and the occasional foray to Brandy Melville – which to my mind simplified the situation.

On one level, I agree that a parent shouldn’t let their child give up study at age 14 or 15 (the age of the child isn’t stated), especially in favour of a career in pop music when there is no suggestion of a recording contract any time soon, just a band with perhaps promising but undeveloped talent on display. The music industry does not offer steady work to artists; only moderate, short-term fame and a bit of money to the majority. Yet it is noticeable that there is no empathy for the boy here, only the dad. All his complaints — that teachers cannot control a class, that he’s not learning anything, that PE is a “ritual humiliation” — are entirely believable and are things I witnessed or experienced many a time when I was at school (particularly, but not just, boarding school).

Frostrup only tells the dad to put his foot down and assert his authority as the parent. She does not tell him to stick up for his son. He claims he is “academically successful and values education” but sent his son to a school which is chaotic, undisciplined and not a learning environment. Why? I’m not saying there is no reason other than that the dad doesn’t really care or takes a “I put up with school for eleven years, so can you” attitude to his son’s difficulties — maybe he is a carer to his sick or disabled wife or another child, maybe his business went bankrupt, maybe he and his wife are in a relatively low-paying profession — but she doesn’t ask and he doesn’t tell. We don’t know the facts and she doesn’t appear to ask. She just takes the dad’s side and assumes that his is the only one there is.

She really should be encouraging the dad to try and address why his son has given up on learning — it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to, just that he finds it difficult in the environment he has been placed in. It’s unusual, as far as I know, for a sensitive person to be uninterested in learning; young people develop that characteristic when they are put off learning, such as by being told they are a failure, or by being discouraged to display it (e.g., by bullies who attack them for being “too smart”). There is no reason why PE should be a “ritual humiliation”; it’s a sign that the teacher is not doing his job properly. The father should be taking these things up with the school, and should not be turning away from his son’s concerns, and a columnist in a decent newspaper should not encourage him to.

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  • M Risbrook

    According to Riaz the mainstream media is heavily biased when it comes to education. Journalists seem to go round with the attitude that school is the best days of your life. We have both wondered whether a high proportion of journalists are people who enjoyed school themselves. Do children who hated school, were scarred by the experience, or dropped out of school and became home educated rarely go into journalism? I 100% agree that a bad or discomforting learning environment is very effective at putting children off learning. I do not think that the government, the media, academics, or society understand disaffection with school and instead blame the child for poor standards and bad behaviour. I passed my 11 plus and went to grammar school but later lost interest in learning what the school was teaching. Academic prowess is not a guarantee of (financial) success later in life. Far from it. There are plenty of people with excellent GCSEs or first class degrees from redbrick universities that never manage to find a good paying job or even a job that uses their skills and knowledge. Sometimes it’s better to let children follow their passion. A good grade in English language and mathematics at GCSE is sensible as an insurance strategy but I see little point in wasting time and effort on subjects that just don’t interest you.

  • I don’t think it’s because the majority of journalists enjoyed school, but for the most part they got something out of it; if they went to a posh school, or a grammar school, as a lot of senior journalists did, they got a leg-up even if they were bullied while there (and the bullying is likely to have been early on, not in the later years of school). On top of that, school serves parents’ needs, freeing them up for work and other activities. School is the elephant in the room whenever teenage mental health needs are discussed; nobody ever asks whether herding hundreds of adolescents into a space and expecting them to be satisfied with each other’s company for most of the working day might be the cause of a lot of it, because adults would have to look after kids if they weren’t there (and possibly, employ and pay them).

  • M Risbrook

    “School is the elephant in the room whenever teenage mental health needs are discussed; nobody ever asks whether herding hundreds of adolescents into a space and expecting them to be satisfied with each other’s company for most of the working day might be the cause of a lot of it”

    You are right there. School is accepted as the norm so hardly anybody questions whether the school environment is to blame for mental health problems. Academic stress from studies is well known and well reported but social stress from other students and staff at the school is far more obscure and ignored by the media.

    When I was at school there was a popular belief that all boys would rather be out playing football in PE lessons than studying maths in a classroom. The belief still holds strong today.