March 03rd, 2014
I have a friend who has a son who is 18 and in his final year at school. He has just received an offer from a university conditional upon him gaining an A,B,C in his A levels. This is a truly remarkable thing. You may think it’s not that remarkable as you will know that students all over the country will be receiving offers and some will have more difficult obstacles to overcome in terms of grade requirements. But this is an amazing achievement for this young man.
When I first met him he was 7 years old and had had a tough life up until that point. He is very dyslexic and had been diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder. He felt very different and most inadequate. He believed he was a bad person. Indeed he was a very angry young boy. The first time I met him he brought his fist down really hard on his mother’s foot which she’d hurt. He was generally quite aggressive and definitely oppositional. His parents were at their wits’ end, having received much conflicting advice and having tried most opportunities available for a child with his set of difficulties. Travelling on public transport was a complete nightmare as he was all over the place and wouldn’t listen to anything anyone told him to do-it was sometimes dangerous and always embarrassing. He had been to three special needs schools and been excluded from all of them. One school had been so unable to manage his behaviour that they locked him in a cupboard!
Luckily his parents were not going to give up on him. Parents don’t generally give up on their children but sometimes they do accept that there are limits to what can be achieved of course. They took positive parenting courses and trained hard to help him. They researched all kinds of different therapies to support him. But mostly they never gave up on the picture they had of who he could be. I don’t mean that they wanted him to be a scholar or an athlete or a musician or follow any particular career path but they knew he was a good and capable person.
They found schools which could support him and it became possible for him to attend school because of all the work they put in at home. In all the years I’ve known him I’ve always been amazed at the way he progressed. He has always had drive and a self-belief that I think comes, not in small part, from his parents’ belief in him. It may not be possible for him to achieve these ABC grades but I wouldn’t like to bet on that because I don’t think anyone knows what’s possible for him. He keeps pushing on past the boundaries of what was thought possible. Literacy is still a struggle for him but this young man will not be stopped by that. He has great resilience and a maturity well beyond his years. His social skills are very acute and he has insights about people rare in someone his age.
I’m not advocating a ‘tiger mum’ approach to pushing our kids to achieve, to acquire accomplishments and qualifications but knowing this boy has given me an insight into what’s possible, not just with blind faith, but with hard work. What has worked here has been 10 years of acknowledging small steps in the right direction, much concrete and specific and sincere affirmation of effort and improvement more than results, requiring him to do the most that he was capable of while using small steps to prepare, giving him responsibilities and encouraging independence, helping him understand and accept his feelings of difference, his anxieties, his frustrations and anger, and helping him learn from failures and bounce back from set-backs. One of the really effective things this family has done is spend time together in play –they all play golf and both children have developed skills in this area. The boy has developed passions in this and other areas that are separate from school work which has helped his sense of achievement. There are no glass ceilings when your sense of self-worth is strong. I don’t mean that he will be studying medicine or astrophysics but he will be able to lead a really fulfilling productive life, doing the best that he is capable of. That is every parent’s dream for their children.