One of the most distressing things I have witnessed for some while took place this week – the verbal battering of a child by his mother (and some retorts!) in the bike shelter at the beginning of the day. About 5 minutes later, I saw the second most distressing thing I have seen for some time – the verbal battering, accompanied by foul and abusive language, of a Year 2 child and his two younger brothers, by their mother, also in the bike shelter. The first was worse, because I intervened, explaining to the child, who is insecure and attention seeking (for reasons to become obvious) that at our school we never let children speak the way he was to his mother, to any adult, parent or not. I asked him to say sorry. He stopped, looked at me, and then looked at his mum and said sorry, having suddenly realised what he was doing and where he was. The mother then carried on where she had left off, calling the child stupid and wicked. Maybe I should have intervened with her then. I had defended her right not to be shouted at and she had not the nous to realise that this applied to her. And I didn’t have the courage to challenge that. Have to do better next time.
It is axiomatic of the work that many have done on the way the brain works in learning, that stresses on children’s brains through provoking the fight-flight mechanism in the reptilian brain have enough effect to shut down all other brain responses and often prevent any serious learning until mid-morning. Certainly this is our experience. And it is becoming more common. Parents in some cases militate against children’s learning by stressing them with unreasonable pressures before the day gets under way, and then wonder why they are not making progress.
We were talking about this today in Collective Worship. After telling a couple of ridiculous stories about sheep, we looked together at Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, and tried to get into a discussion about the problems for the shepherd if one sheep clears off and needs to be looked for. Penning the rest of the sheep, taking the sheep with the shepherd, getting a mate to look after the sheep, calling for the sheep, leaving the 99 and trusting them to stay where they were – all of these were responses offered by the children. But no-one made the decision to abandon the one sheep to his fate and say “well, we have 99 left, so that’s all right, then”. There was – and is, I think – an instinctive desire amongst children that ALL should be cared for, all shepherded. What Wendell Berry calls the Rational Mind (in his essay “Two Minds”) is the one that many parents seem to have. Get the kid to school at all costs, as long as we get there and I get to work on time. The other mind, what Berry terms the Sympathetic Mind, operates from more compassionate, communal and selfless motives and, often rejecting the organisational need to “be on time” or get things done in the right way, or be efficient or whatever, cares for the weak and the vulnerable and gives them a place to be safe in the society they find themselves in. We find this clash going on at work all the time – do the compassionate thing and give a late payee more time, or insist on payment up front before we let them in the door – or similar. Compassionate hearts sometimes have to make hard decisions. I have yet to see a hard heart make a compassionate one.
We have all found ourselves shouting at our children. That is a fact of all but the holiest life, but bullying the weak from a well of anger is not. We have a shepherding responsibility for all in our community, given us by God. Parents, whether they know this or not, have been called by God to shepherd their children, in the image of the Father who created all. How else shall we live in peace?