The wonderful thing, and the terrifying thing, about children is that they have such potential. I found myself quite moved watching the final performance of yesterday’s International Schools Choir Festival: 200 children, 60 nationalities, 6 schools….1 song! And sung with such joy and passion and gusto. Inspirational! I couldn’t help but think what a tremendous force for good these young people can be.
And of course many of them will go on to be great people and do great things in, and for, our world, not least perhaps, because they have had the advantage of a foundation at a good international school to lend them the tolerance and compassion to be able to relate with, and serve, all kinds of people and the self-confidence to believe they can make a difference. But some will not. Hence “terrifying”….because the weight of responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of us: the parents; the teachers; the care-givers; and the guardians.
No child, I fervently believe, is ever born bad; nor does any child set out on his or her own to become bad. Yet each new generation that matures into adulthood contains within it bad people, or people, at least, who do bad things. Why? Because we mess them up (to put it rather more politely than the Philip Larkin did in his poem “This be the Verse”!). “We may not mean to but we do.”
Don’t get me wrong; I am not one of those who think children are made of crystal- they are not. In fact in my experience they are incredible resilient, resourceful and downright tough…in the moment at least. Children can (and sometimes need to) be treated firmly.
But what about the future? What about the potential?
Children are pre-programmed to learn and they are incredibly good at it. I believe it is the case that a human being learns half of what he or she will ever know by the age of 5. Sounds like a good thing doesn’t it? But they literally soak up everything that goes on around them: everything they see and hear and sense…..and that’s quite scary.
We can see the effect that the fuel we put into our children, and the physical exercise that we arrange for them, has on their physical development. What we can’t see is the effect of the bewildering array of their life experiences on the development of their character. It is true, of course, that we should be very concerned about, and vigilant regarding, what our children watch on the television, see on the internet or hear in their music but there is a bigger influence on the development of their values, morals, principles, views, opinions and personal qualities……us…their parents. We are their heroes and heroines; it’s us they aspire to become. So they listen to what we say….and how we say it. They watch what we do and how we behave. They even examine our motives. They hear our opinions and, certainly for the first dozen or so years of their precious lives, believe them to be right and just. In short: they learn from us. What a responsibility! And the challenge is not one that we all successfully meet: the statistics surrounding inter-generational links between things like alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence are stark enough proof of that.
Part of how children learn is also by trying things, by pushing boundaries, testing tolerance levels and checking consequences. In other words, they will be naughty. Much as we love them unconditionally, they can be mean, deceitful, thoughtless, careless, selfish, rude, stroppy and disobedient. And consequences must follow. I’ve lost track by now of the number of teachers struggling with a poorly behaved child or class that I have counseled with the words, “Don’t shout: sanction!” Sanctions –appropriate, proportionate and explained sanctions, applied with fairness and consistency, are still one of the most effective behaviour management strategies we have. And after the sanction, what I believe passionately to be the divine right of every child must follow………forgiveness. For if we do not model forgiveness- if our children do not experience what a blessing it is to be forgiven- what possible hope can there be for the future of our broken world?