Gentle Parenting

Does the UK education system “break” children?

When our daughter was born we soon decided that I would not return to work. It felt as though spending those first few years with my child was the only right option for me. A keen believer in free play we spent most of our time together exploring the outdoors, playing in puddles or making sand castles.

I truly loved every moment of those first few years with my daughter. Every day she amazed me with her imagination and determination to try new things.

Then came the day she was due to start nursery. I struggled to come to terms with the separation as well as trusting a complete stranger to care for my child. An attachment parent, I had spent very few hours away from my firstborn.

The morning of her first day arrived and there was nothing but tears and distress, mine that is! My daughter was all excitement and bounced in to the classroom without a care in the world. This was the start of two years’ nursery education which my daughter truly loved and cherished.

She thrived amongst other children and loved to learn with her friends. I started to think that all my concerns about the British school system had been for nothing. She was after all so content and happy.

At the tender age of four my daughter was due to start school, something I had determinedly tried to delay. I decided, when my request to refer her was declined, that I would home school her as I was truly concerned that school would have a very negative impact on my carefree child.

However, my daughter had other plans and was desperate to start school with her friends.

Her decision left me feeling conflicted. I had spent four years telling her that her voice was valid, that she had the right to make her own decisions and I simply had to listen to her wishes and remain child led. After all, this was how I had decided to parent, a relationship built on trust and mutual respect. Unfortunately I really wish I hadn’t allowed her this choice.

My fiercely independent and joyful child has slowly disappeared and has been replaced with a child who constantly questions her own ability and who is desperate to please others even if that means she sacrifices her own happiness.

Her internal motivation quickly disintegrated and here she was completely reliant on constant confirmation that she was “good enough”.

She suddenly cared what others thought more than how she felt herself. Even her art work had become a quest for recognition rather than a creation of love.

“I love my picture and all the colours, mum, I really love painting” was replaced with “Do you like it mummy? Is it good?”

My heart was breaking for my daughter and I tried best as I could to contradict the constant pressure she felt to be perfect, to perform and always be the “best”.

We spoke for hours on end about what being human really means, how we all have days when things don’t go our way and that that’s really ok.

I started answering her requests for “empty praise” with attempts to help her take pleasure in the things she produced. I would speak to her about the colours on her newest artwork; I would ask her what her favourite part was and if she had enjoyed making it. I would tell her how the colours and images made me feel and ask her about her feelings, but all she wanted was for me to tell her it was a “pretty picture”.

As she moved up through the first three years of school we were constantly met with new reward and punishment systems: the clouds, the traffic lights, the dojo system, golden time and more recently, star of the week.

It’s strange really, how they have to keep changing them, especially since those in charge insist that these systems are in fact beneficial for the children!

Every time one of these rewards was handed out, my child would exit the school gates completely broken and questioning why she wasn’t “good enough”. As a mother I was and still am truly lost for words.

My daughter did everything to earn the star reward including staying behind daily and cleaning the class room and I got to a point where I had enough.

The problem with reward systems is that external motivation only works for a very short period of time. When you’re not attempting something for your own satisfaction you simply stop caring before long. Of course those in charge of education must know this, but instead of reforming the system they simply change the reward.

So, I told my daughter that the reward system was a means of control. A way to tempt children to behave as adults deem correct not as individuals with their own needs. I told her that the paper star does not define her and it never will.

Since then I have tried my hardest to unschool a child who is desperate to attend mainstream education and I hope that the steps I’ve taken at home will save her from being broken by an educational system that is in desperate need of reform.

I simply cannot understand how it can be justifiable to use systems which completely destroy most children’s self belief. Systems that instead of empowering children desperately try to suppress them.

Being Scandinavian I started school at the age of seven, the days were short and packed with outdoor activities, drama and play. Music was used continually in the classroom and everyday we got to listen to an exciting story. I never felt pressured or worried about going to school. I didn’t sit a test until I started high school and even then, most of my days were shorter then the exhaustingly long school days my seven year old has to endure.

It leaves me truly confused that a country as great as this cannot connect the dots when it comes to the mental health of children. That somehow the link hasn’t been made between the increasingly suppressive educational system and the welfare of British children.

Is it not obvious that exposing a six year old to academic testing will cause distress and anxiety for the child?

I was lucky to attend school in a country where there were neither punishments nor rewards but where the focus was on nurturing children’s  internal motivation and social skills .

I couldn’t read at the age of five but I could make a tree hut and dig a hole in the sand so deep I hoped I would soon fall out of the sky and land in China.

Isn’t it about time that the children’s emotional welfare becomes the main focus within the British education system? I’m sure that as a country we would earn a gold star for that.

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