Active kids

Newspapers often carry articles discussing ‘studies’ into methods of parenting. These are generally written in a critical style and will, over time, offer contradictory advice. This weekend there were reports of a government advisor who believes that children whose parents enrol them in too many organised activities lose the ability to think for themselves and are therefore unable to cope with living independently when they are older. I sometimes wonder if these advisors have children themselves. I can see that, taken to extremes, any method of parenting could be detrimental. However, most parents listen to what their kids want and offer gentle encouragement or admonishment. If a child is active, whether through organisations or free play, it is likely to be because this is what the child wants.

Over the years my three children have tried so many different sports and activities that it can be hard to remember all the things that they have done. They have attended regular training sessions for ballet, gymnastics, swimming, football, horse riding, hockey, cricket, golf, taekwondo, judo and archery, They have joined rainbows, brownies, guides, beavers, cubs, scouts and explorers. They have attended weekend drama schools, taken piano lessons and joined badminton and ping pong clubs. There have been activity camps with climbing, kayaking, raft building and caving. They have even chosen to go on week long residentials where they could race karts and quad bikes. Some of the regular activities were enjoyed for a year or two before the time was needed to fit in the next interest, others they still attend regularly.

There have been periods when they were younger when it did feel as if we had no time to sit down and just relax. The logistics of getting each child from school to activity after activity meant packed teas eaten in the car and homework being done as they waited for a sibling to complete a lesson. I did not, however, insist on them doing any of these things apart from the swimming lessons (they had to keep these up until they could swim a good distance with a strong stroke). All activities were started because they heard about how amazing it was from a friend. They would try a couple of classes and, if they wanted to continue, would be enrolled for a term. Once paid for I insisted that classes were attended regularly, but when the bill for the next term came in they were always given the choice of continuing or leaving. Over the years we have accumulated a lot of uniforms, kit and sports equipment that is no longer used.

Alongside these organised activities we did a lot of walking and cycling as a family. We also went swimming together each weekend for many years. Our village abuts the estate of a large house with grounds open to the paying public and a large, exciting adventure playground. We would buy season tickets for this each year and the children would regularly meet up with friends to play. They were always free to go out around the village but more often chose to have friends back to our garden which we had turned into a mini playground for them. Quiet moments were rare.

Far from taking away their independence the experiences they have gained from taking part  in so much has given them the confidence to face new situations and challenges. They know that they can have a reasonable attempt at most sports and are used to going to new places and working with people they do not know. It has not always been logistically possible (or necessary!) to drive them everywhere so they have got used to travelling under their own steam and, as they have got older, have learnt to use public transport. My eldest child is now capable of organising herself.

I do not hover over my children constantly but I do like to know where they are and what they are doing. I also like to support them in their interests and encourage active participation in support of clubs they belong to. I take an interest in their lives and feel they will be happier if they leave their laptops regularly and participate in something more active and sociable. They are of an age where this cannot be forced and they value free time so it is particularly pleasing that they still choose to take part in a good number of activities.

To suggest that parents should organise less for their children and allow them to play free or get bored ignores the alternatives available to the modern child. When the majority of houses contain multiple computers and televisions a child is as likely to switch on and tune out rather than run around outside. There are also fewer and fewer parents who are happy to have their child run free. I have lost count of the number of parents who have voiced concern to me over the years that I have expected my eight or nine year old to walk the few hundred metres home from school or the village hall unattended (even in the dark!), or who has complained that my child was being noisy, boisterous or engaging in rough play whilst out with friends. When my son fell out of a tree he learnt a valuable lesson. Yes, he could have broken his neck, but that could happen on the stairs at home.

My hackles will always be raised when unasked for criticism and advise are offered. If parents are to do their job then they must be allowed to make decisions based on how their kids are and how best to encourage them to be good citizens. There will always be extremes – parents who ignore their children almost entirely and those who make every decision for them – but most parents that I know encourage but do not force. I think that my kids are amazing. I hope that most parents think that of their kids. They are also individuals and will react in different ways to the same treatment, just as adults will. If the government is trying to parent the nation then I would advise them to learn a few lessons in parenting themselves.



Why I became an amateur teacher

My three children all attended the local primary school in the village where we live. The school gets impressive reports from Ofsted inspections and holds up well in the government’s school performance league tables. Most of the pupils come from relatively affluent homes and have intelligent parents who care about their children’s education and well being. Interested and supportive parents can be a double edged sword for teachers who need space and freedom to be allowed to teach, but compared to many other establishments, teaching in this school should not have been too much of a challenge.

It is unfortunate that the school has a culture of bullying. Not the violent, frightening, obvious bullying but the insidious, misery inducing, mental bullying of the powerful, popular protagonist. It starts in the early years with minor threats such as to exclude a child from a party that everyone else is invited to if they do not do as they are asked. This continues through the complex iterations of development as the bully realises that he can get away with his cruelty and thrive. The staff at the school were either unaware or disinterested. Perhaps they thought it was just something that the kids needed to learn to put up with. Thankfully, not all schools are so accepting of this type of behaviour.

To say that none of my children enjoyed their time at primary school would be to seriously understate their feelings on the matter. I was not aware until well after the older two had left just how much they had disliked the place. Much of this was down to boredom and the helplessness felt when they observed innocents being blamed and bullies rewarded. As their parent I tried to talk to staff at the school about particular issues when they directly affected my children but things rarely improved. This situation finally came to a head when my youngest son was nearing the end of his penultimate year. Whilst trying to have a discussion with the Headteacher she went red in the face (a sure sign that she was angry) and told me that I was a bad parent.

I would never hold myself up as a shining example of good parenting but I know for sure that I am not and never have been a bad parent. I considered carefully this breakdown of trust between the school and myself, looked at how particularly unhappy my child was, and decided that I needed to remove him from the cause of his misery. I believed that he needed nurturing, to have his confidence in himself rebuilt, and to catch up academically after  years of neglect. I took the decision to home school him.

It surprises me that not many parents are aware of the rules surrounding a child’s education.  In the UK, education is compulsory between the ages of five and seventeen, but attending school is not. There are a plethora of resources available on the internet which provide all that is needed to plan interesting and challenging lessons for all ages and abilities. Although state schools must follow a national curriculum this is not a requirement for those being educated outside of the system.

When I first discussed with my son my idea of becoming his teacher he asked a few pertinent questions and then, showing great excitement, wanted it to happen immediately. So it did. The next day I delivered the required letter to the school, he went to say goodbye to his teacher and friends and we left. Rarely have I seen him happier. I ensured that he was aware that if he did not work hard at his lessons for me then he would be sent back to school (a different one), but this was never an issue. He was focused, diligent and cheerful in his work. We had a lot of fun.

During this time, my older two children were attending a secondary school in one of our nearby towns. They had taken a little while to settle in after their experiences at primary school but seemed to have found friends and were doing well academically. I was not convinced that I would be able to teach my youngest son much beyond primary level so he was aware that he would only be home schooled until he was old enough to join his siblings. The only request he made was that he would be put in a class away from any of the pupils he had known at primary school. The secondary school acquiesced to this request and in due course he made the transition as smoothly as I could hope.

My son thrived being home schooled. We went out and about a great deal, studying local history and geography in situ. These field studies formed the basis for many of our other lessons. With one to one teaching concentrating on the areas he did not understand so well he would whizz through my lesson plans. It was incredibly hard work for me. As I had never taught before I would spend hours preparing the lessons, teach the lessons, and then revert to being mum at the end of the day. I had to ensure that the rest of my family still got my time and attention. It was challenging and exhausting but so rewarding.

One of the things that has surprised and somewhat saddened me since I took the decision to home school is the response I have had from other parents. Local parents have all said they understand why I did it – and several have commented that they wish they had the courage and confidence to do the same. Other parents have approached me for advice as they are seriously considering removing their children from school. How sad that the system is failing so many. I was always aware that other parents had issues as each year there would be a trickle of local families moving their children to another school, not because of family circumstances but because long standing problems were not being dealt with. I guess there must have been some satisfied parents but I have yet to talk to them.

Home schooling will not suit everyone. It requires time, effort and infinite patience from the teacher and a willingness to learn from the pupil. As a result of our experience I have met a number of other home schooled kids and they appear so confident, articulate and pleasant compared to their peers. Perhaps it is the type of child who suits home schooling as much as the method of education. Taking my child out of the emotionally toxic environment of that school was certainly right for him.

Homeschooling schedules