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Cotton wool kids need to be taught that life is tough

By Fionola Meredith

Published 16/10/2015

Paul Flanagan of St Bernard's primary
Paul Flanagan of St Bernard's primary

If local schools want to raise a generation of children to be weak, fragile, state-dependent adults, quick to take offence and incapacitated by fear, then they're going exactly the right way about it.

First we heard about the Glengormley head teacher who decreed that parents must not send birthday invitations to school, in order to prevent "upset and disappointment" to children who didn't receive an invite.

Then we had another primary school - also in Glengormley, oddly enough - which has issued a ban on running in the playground.

What struck me, in both cases, was the similarity of the language used by the school principals.

Nicola Duggan, from St Mary's on the Hill primary school, said that the decision to ban party invitations was taken with "the children's best interest at heart", adding that "we only have the children's welfare at the centre of all our decisions".

Paul Flanagan of St Bernard's primary, where running has been outlawed, said that "the last thing any parent wants is a phone call saying their child is in hospital or has lost a tooth. We are very pro-health in the school and only ever think of the children's health and safety through every one of our decisions".

We're only thinking of the children - that's the message coming across here. We just want them to be happy and safe, all the time, and we'll do everything within our power to make sure that they are. What person in their right mind could disagree with that? Well, me, for one.

Of course, nobody wants to see a child injured, and it's sad (especially for parents) to witness the tears of a child who feels that they have been deliberately excluded by classmates. I know. I've been there. You want to go in there and punish the nasty little beast who hurt your child.

But feelings of rejection and failure are part of life, and it's vital that children learn to deal with them if they are to grow up to be healthy, independent and fully-functional adults who can soothe themselves when things go wrong, rather than collapsing in a wet, soggy mess and looking for somebody else to blame.

Likewise, risk - of injury, of loss, of heartbreak - is simply an inescapable aspect of existence. It cannot be eradicated; rather it must be managed, in a sensible, proportionate way, constantly balancing up freedoms with dangers.

Children need to be taught how to measure and handle risk, not have it completely excised from their lives by wildly overprotective adults in positions of authority.

It makes sense for a principal to ban pupils from having a lunchtime football match in the school car park, because there's a clear risk that they could get knocked down. But point-blank banning any running at all, including - absurdly enough - in the school playground, teaches children that even the most innocuous everyday activities are inherently dangerous and could seriously hurt them.

It also teaches them -erroneously, and in my view, harmfully - that risk can be entirely avoided. It can't.

It appears that the physical and emotional over-protection of schoolchildren is at least - if not more - important to some school principals than teaching their pupils how to read and write. When I was discussing this issue with Kieran McTaggart, principal of St Bernard's primary in south Belfast, on the BBC's Talkback programme, I was shocked to hear him say that for some children, not receiving a party invitation felt like "the end of their life", and could be tantamount to bullying.

Look, I don't want to return to the days of austere, punitive, cane-wielding headmasters with all the emotional literacy of a sergeant major, but there is such a thing as too much empathy. Over-protective, over-indulgent principals might like to congratulate themselves on their child-centred approach which is all about keeping kids happy, happy, happy, but I think they are letting their young charges down badly here. They are enfeebling them, not empowering them.

In lulling children into a false sense of security that their future lives will be free from challenge, threat or risk, schools are failing to equip them with the skills they need to be contented, self-sufficient adults. They are failing to impart something that is vital to a successful life: resilience.

Children cannot be happy all the time, inside school or out, and it is our role - particularly as parents, but also as teachers - not to cosset them, but to help them learn to cope.

Belfast Telegraph

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