22 November 2017

“I wanted to see what would happen!” part three

Following on from parts one and two of his blog, Simon Vincent continues to share his insights into teenage boys, gained over his 12 years as a junior boys’ housemaster.

"Mistakes are the portals of discovery." - James Joyce

Most boys have an innate desire to find things out for themselves and, given the opportunity, will do so despite the best advice that they are given. Certainly, the consequences can seem terrifying, but I would contend that the consequences of not allowing them to do so are worse. The well-known observation “Why, when someone tells you that there are 100 million stars in the universe do you believe them, yet when you see a sign saying ‘Wet Paint’, do you have to touch it to check?” is one that applies particularly to teenage boys. What makes this worse is the extent to which they wind each other up and challenge an arms race of bravado. Among young teenage boys unused to each other’s company this forms an essential part of early interaction. Boys are not great at having meaningful conversations about themselves, as they are all terrified that others will find them boring and immature. They are so desperate to show their credentials to their peers that they exaggerate to an amusingly ridiculous degree. In an overblown social version of the card game Liar, the stakes of calling each other out are raised by the prospect of being called out in turn. What is left is an environment where boys think that others may not be telling the entire truth, but recognise that they, in turn, have perjured themselves so they all just go along with the illusion. I have overheard the most ridiculous (and often shocking) claims of boys earnestly telling others that their dad invented the SAS or that they have been to a pool party with Rihanna or other such nonsense! I remember clearly the horror when I saw a (not very gymnastically-talented) boy in the house garden standing on the fence, surrounded by a cheering crowd, and clearly about to do a back flip off it. Time seemed to slow down as I rushed for the back door to try and stop him, but flip he did, landing flat on his back on the hard ground. I had images of A&E flashing in my head. Thankfully he was unhurt, but what emerged was that he had told other boys so many times that he could do it, that he had actually begun to believe that he could. This is a fairly benign example, but it is at the root of many that are less so.

The world is changed and it is an inevitability that our risk-averse culture has arisen (especially with the paperwork at schools). This is all very sensible and helps to keep the lawyer from the door, but I am not the first to recognise that organised fun is often no fun at all! My best memories of boarding school are not the wonderful school trips or the coaching sessions we had but those where we went freestyle, took charge of our own leisure time and tried to do something different. Pupils still do this, thankfully, and in a much more controlled environment the thrill of doing something for themselves has added piquancy. The boys, when left to their own devices, are often much more sensible and risk-averse than we give them credit for, but our inability to give them enough leeway makes them all the more committed to challenging action. I completely understand the desire to keep children safe, but the teenage years are a time when the mantle of ‘child’ is starting to shrug from their shoulders and they are looking (albeit through rose-tinted, psychedelic spectacles) at the fact that they may be a viable individual in their own right. I see our role as giving them advice and a road map, whilst always being on standby to jump in with roadside breakdown cover if really needed in case of failure.

Failure is probably the most important learning process in a teenage boy’s development, so let’s not deny it to them. Some years ago I coached an U14 rugby team with a colleague. Our season statistics by December read Played 15 Won 15 and County Cup Champions. Amid all the celebrations at the end of that autumn term, my colleague and I both voiced our misgivings. Most teenage boys have pretty high opinions of themselves and, if not slightly tempered, can cross over from confidence into arrogance. Don't get me wrong, I love my teams to win but when they start to believe their own hype about themselves there are problems coming. In this instance, rather predictably, the rugby team refused to listen to the advice that they were given to change the way they played at U15 level or to work on core skills. As a result they only won five matches out of 12 at U15 level. A quote from a classic film best summarises this when Commander Stinger tells the well-nicknamed Maverick (Tom Cruise), “Son, your ego is writing cheques that your body can’t cash.” This is spot on. In order to become better young men, boys must experience failure and disappointment and test themselves against that, rather than success. I do not suggest that we should create losing situations for them, rather that we allow them to fail (gently) more than trying vicariously to exorcise our own past failings by attempting to solve all issues for our children. This is to deny them the very learning opportunity that makes us seek to help them. Again, this is totally understandable and I am sometimes unable to resist with my own children – but I try.

And so ...
I have been enormously privileged to welcome so many wonderful young men into Bryanston over the last 12 years and I have been truly proud of the way that they have progressed and moved on. The fact that my first intake of boys is now 26 years old is terrifying but such is the march of time. As I have said, my main motivation in writing this is to provide some kind of balance to the emotional turmoil of parenting that is all the more accurately felt if your current teenager is your first. There is no blueprint for success here, just some observations about how to make a really difficult job as a parent a little bit easier and to make interaction with the school more straightforward.

A former Headmaster of this school is reported to have told new parents that “A boarding school education is like cooking a casserole. Put all the parts in and as long as you don't lift the lid or stir it for five years it will turn out delicious.” This is probably apocryphal, but it does sum up a now-outdated attitude towards boarding. The reality these days is very different, but there is an essential point in the quotation. The whole point of these five years is a move towards adulthood – our children’s adulthood. Up until this point we have been their major guides through life, but this will probably not be the case in five years’ time and we need to learn to let them go a bit. This is a transitional period when teenagers are looking for other role models, other sources of advice, other sources of love and friendship. It is difficult for the boys, but far more difficult for the parents. Good luck!

20 November 2017

“I wanted to see what would happen!” part two

In part two of his blog, Simon Vincent looks at the pitfalls of Snowplough Parenting, the need for teenage boys to develop a sense of self-reliance as well as the importance of consistent boundaries. You can read part one here.

Some years ago the Headmistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School wrote an article bemoaning the rise of what she called ‘Snowplough Parenting’. Many were familiar with the concept of Helicopter Parents, but I was struck that her use of the snowplough was more apposite. The model that this reflects is where parents ‘attach’ themselves to the front of their child’s life and act like a snowplough, clearing all obstacles out of their child’s way. These children are never allowed to be disappointed, or to fail to make a team, or to fail to win a prize of some sort, or cope with any kind of setback. I totally understand the deep-felt desire to see one’s child happy and successful, but have seen enough of this to conclude that this kind of action is not an effective preparation for life. The wonderful opportunity for boys at boarding school is the opportunity to take some control over aspects of their lives and to do this by developing dialogue with a number of adults and peers who are not their parents. This encourages honesty, negotiation, consistency and a focus on the importance of cause and consequence.

This is where mirror-gazing comes in. My Platoon Sergeant at Sandhurst (CSgt Broad Grenadier Guards) had a habit, when officer cadets came to him with problems or complaints, of making them stand in front of a bathroom mirror. “Whenever you think that you are having a bad time,” he would say, “whenever you think that the world is against you, that life is unfair, just look in the mirror and say ‘50% of my problems are looking back at me right now.’ Once you accept that the only person you can rely upon to sort your problems out is you, then you can move on.” Now obviously CSgt Broad was interacting with adults, but his belief was that you cannot control what other people do, only what you can do, and that time reflecting on the unfairness of life was wasted. This takes years, but I believe that a central part of growing up as a teenage boy is to at least have the impression that you are sorting things out for yourself. There are, of course, many people in an institution like a boarding school to support teenagers in this, but the confidence gained by teenagers when they start to take control of providing their own solutions is invaluable.

Possibly my most important words are about something that is the most difficult to demonstrate. In dealing with boys, and men, consistency is key. Boys don't really do ‘mercurial’, they get confused by mood swings and they often don’t read social situations appropriately as a result. Boys welcome boundaries. It doesn't really matter where they are and it doesn't mean they won't push them, but the knowledge of a boundary puts boys’ minds at rest. If you are consistently harsh then fine, consistently relaxed equally so, but flipping from one to the other puts boys on edge. Life is easy at school. There are clear rules, clear sanctions and we can enforce them unencumbered by the massive handicap of loving the children in our care. We like them, of course, but attempts to play the guilt card or tug at the emotions are easily rebuffed, because they are the children we look after, not the children that we brought into the world. The main thing from a school point of view is that, despite what the boys may say, we do not treat them unfairly, have favourites or ignore them in favour of other children – it is profoundly not in our interests to do so.

I hope that this insight gives parents the ability to take an objective view of telephone reports of ‘unfairness’.

In the third part of his blog, Simon will look at the important part experimentation and failure have to play in teenage boys’ development.


17 November 2017

“I wanted to see what would happen!” part one

This week Simon Vincent shares his insights into teenage boys after 12 years as housemaster of a junior boys’ house at Bryanston. The first in his three-part blog looks at communication, or the lack thereof.

I need to come clean at the start – I have never parented a teenage boy. I have three girls (which presents its own issues!), but I have stood in loco parentis for nearly 440 13- to 14-year-old boys over the last 12 years and I hope that this has put me in a position to offer some insight.

“I wanted to see what would happen” is a phrase that I heard many times over the last 12 years when questioning boys about something particularly stupid and thoughtless that they had done. This ranged from spraying deodorant at close range onto their nipples to see if they would freeze, to drinking the contents of a glow-stick and then standing in a loo with the lights off and waiting to see if their wee would glow in the dark! Indeed, these are some of the more explainable ‘experiments’ and when, during the course of an investigation into an incident, I would ask “What were you thinking?” the answer would often be “I don’t know.” This was an honest answer – they really didn’t know what they were thinking, but just did it anyway to “see what would happen.” This is part of both the frustration and charm of teenage boys; they live in the moment, sparing little thought for consequence or caution. They are natural risk-takers and, if harnessed, this can be a great route to success, but the path is a dangerous one also.

I find most teenage boys eager to please, loyal almost to a fault, and endlessly entertaining. To see this, however, one has to accept the inevitability of failure. Teenagers will let you down, they will make errors of judgement, they will do stupid things and once you have grasped this reality, you can get on with the business of building relationships with them.

Of course, my generic teenage boy does not apply to every child, but almost all that I have looked after display some of the traits I am about to describe. I have no qualifications other than experience for these thoughts and please feel free to ignore them as you wish.

Most boys are not great communicators – at least not with their parents. They tend only to see the point in communicating when there is something they want or need to offload. The key to this is that they do not see their parents as human beings in the strict sense of the word, more as simple conduits for their own desires. This is precisely what we as parents have been encouraging for the previous 13 years, delighting in the fact that these are ‘our’ children, who we take pride in caring for. Teenage boys coming to boarding school are starting to think of themselves less as ‘ours’ and more as ‘theirs’, but the apron strings still pertain when they cannot make something happen on their own. This needs to be borne in mind when having telephone conversations with teenage boys – there is usually a reason for the phone call, and it is rarely just to have a nice chat!

My advice for dealing with the above is as follows:

If they want something, try to resist giving it to them straight away (be it something physical or your support to make something happen). They have come to boarding school to become more independent and there are channels within the school to sort out any issues they have. If they do not have something, or are not able to do something, there is usually a credible reason for it (bad organisation, rules etc). Most teenage boys have an over-developed sense of injustice and a complete inability to see things from any point of view other than their own. I lost count of the irate calls from parents claiming that a member of staff had ‘unfairly’ prevented a boy from going down to Blandford or that ‘everyone’ had a new pair of Beats headphones and it was ‘social suicide’ not to have them. These were the teenagers’ words being projected back to me. In these cases, the purpose of the call home was evident: they wanted their parents to put pressure on the school to allow the trip to Blandford or they wanted new headphones. Simple. All the surrounding hyperbole was aimed at tugging at the parental heartstrings. There is a danger here, for the moment the teenager senses that parents are ‘on their team’ against the school the slippery slope becomes precipitous.

When it comes to your son offloading negativity, please try not to worry too much. This tends to be something that lands on mothers and makes them feel wretched. If boys have worries they are not great at talking them through with their friends. They phone their mothers, offload all their negative thoughts, then get back to life as normal, happily relieved of the burden. This is a coping mechanism for them and they spare not a single thought for the worrying that is going on at home. In my experience, most boys do not phone up when things are going well, or if they are having a good time with their friends. In these cases their emotional needs are already being met so why bother to seek any added validation from their parents? This may sound harsh but, from what I have seen, it is truly the way that most of their minds work.

This treatment of parents by teenagers shocks some at first. We at boarding school are in the privileged position of seeing the very best of the teenagers that we look after. This is because they know that they have to work at gaining our trust and liking (or that of their friends) and pour all their efforts into this. A parent’s love is unconditional, and they know that, so often by the time they get home they have exhausted their reservoirs of pleasantness. I think that as long as we parents can be sure that our teenagers behave well with other adults, then we can celebrate that.

In part two of his blog Simon will look at Snowplough Parents, the importance for teenagers to learn self-reliance and the need for consistency from parents and other adults around them.