It is important that parents enquire of each child how does (s)he feel about going back to school; this is also true for teenagers. However be sure your enquiry is open-ended and that it has no hidden agenda which young people are very quick to spot. An open question is not invasive whereas a closed one can be intrusive. Children and teenagers are entitled to their own private world and the idea is that you knock on that door with an open question rather than barging in with a closed one. Examples of open questions are: ‘How are you today?’; ‘How was your day?’; ‘What are your thoughts on going back to school.’ Examples of closed questions are: ‘Are you going to get down to your studies this year?’; ‘Are you dreading going back to school;’ ‘How do you feel about your new teacher.’ Closed questions are well-intentioned but the difficulty is that they are about the questioner’s agenda and not the child’s or teenager’s agenda. It is best that young people bring up their own issues because when they do they are far more motivated to find resolutions. Furthermore young people are far more likely to open the door to you when you ask open questions but it is likely you’ll get the door slammed shut when you ask a closed question!
Of course parents may have their worries about their child’s school progress but it is important that parents own their own anxieties and not project these onto children. When parents own their own anxieties and question the source of them what they may find is that they are re-living out the fears that they had when they were school-going children and, sadly, that these fears have not been resolved. Typical unresolved fears are of criticism, of not being good enough, of failure, of what other people think. Sometimes particular addictions may underlie a parent’s anxiety – addictions to success, to status, to work, to getting things perfect. Whatever the sources are parents need to find the support and help to resolve these quite crippling insecurities so that they do not burden their children with their unresolved emotional baggage.
Certainly it is important that parents show belief in their child’s limitless potential but make sure that there is no hidden agenda behind that affirmation. Furthermore, when considering children’s academic progress it is critical that parents hold onto the fact that each child is an individual and that each child expresses that individuality in ways that are very different – sometimes diametrically opposite – to a brother or sister. Observing and appreciating the genius of how each child manages to be so different are fundamental to a fulfilling life for children. Any attempts to get children to conform to the ways of the parents themselves or to other siblings are always counterproductive. Children are here to live out their own unique existence and it is the mature parent and teacher that champions that cause.
Some parents may avoid asking the open question for fear of opening a can of worms: they may feel that if they ignore what they have perceived their son’s or daughter’s dislike and, sometimes, hate of school, that time will resolve the problems. However time resolves nothing, only action. Parents need to be prepared for anything that may arise when they ask the open question ‘How do you feel about going back to school?’ Whatever does arise needs to be responded to with empathy, understanding and patience; any irritability or judgement or ‘throwing up one’s arms in exasperation’ will immediately dry up the young person’s revelation of his or her interiority. Young people have no intention of making life difficult for their parents or, indeed, teachers; what are perceived as difficult behaviours by parents and teachers are young people’s unconscious attempts to show how difficult life is for them. There are many reasons why young people may dread, dislike, hate school – as many reasons as the number of students – the reasons are always peculiar to each individual student. Warning them that they are ruining their lives and their future career prospects will not work; there are deeper psychological, relationship and self-esteem issues that need resolution before the young person will recover their love of learning. Of course a dislike of school may be due to the young person’s interests lying elsewhere. Whatever the issue, what is required is sensitive exploration and facilitation of the young persons to find solutions for themselves.
Of course there is a further question to be asked: how do the teachers feel about going back to school? That’s for another day.
Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist/Author of several books including Self-Esteem The Key to Your Child’s Future.