By Linda Stade
The jacarandas are flowering, and Australian cities are aglow with purple. For teachers, this signals a significant annual event; our Year 12s are sitting exams and leaving school. Are they ready?
Many graduates are 18 which means they are legally adults. They now need to choose careers, take full responsibility for their finances, and look after their own wellbeing, not to mention help choose governments. However, only a few weeks ago, many of these young people were having their lunch packed for them by their parents. At school, they had to ask to leave class to go to the bathroom. So, if they aren’t ready, maybe that is on us.
There is a lot of talk about our kids not being prepared for life beyond school. However, it tends to be superficial discussion about whether schools are teaching students how to do their taxes, apply for a job, or change a tyre. Being ‘ready’ is a much bigger issue. It is about slow and gradual development and yes, schools have a part to play, but it is something they can only achieve in partnership with parents.
Together, schools and parents need to consider that perhaps the question isn’t, ‘How do we encourage our senior school students to grow up?’ Maybe it is, ‘How do we stop treating them like children?’
A Two-pronged Approach
1. Rites of passage
Long ago, there were rites of passage that young people passed through along the journey to adulthood. As children matured, they received more responsibility and respect in their community. Many of these rites were ceremonial rituals that acknowledged a young person’s development, step by step. This is still an important part of many indigenous cultures around the world.
In most developed western societies these rites of passage have disappeared with the growing focus on the immediate family unit and the preservation of childhood. However, it is natural for kids to want to show their development into adulthood, so they have created their own significant milestones. Some are quite understandable, like getting a driver’s license. Others are less healthy, like getting drunk at Schoolies, breaking rules, or sexual behaviours.
It is time for families and schools to look at creating and celebrating healthy milestones across the journey from child to adult. We need to find ways to formally invite our kids into adulthood in a way that is valued and celebrated by our kids and the community generally.
Some schools do this very well with leadership roles, immersion programs, and service opportunities, while parents have their own, more individualised stepping-stones. For example, families I’ve spoken to gradually ease their young adolescents into greater responsibility by having them:
Make their own appointments for haircuts, etc
Monitor and manage their own calendar
Occasionally go to the supermarket and shop for the evening meal
Make their own way to school by walking, riding or public transport.
Parents of children in their mid-teens and beyond might take on family roles like:
Organising parts of a family holiday
Planning and preparing a few meals during the week
Taking charge of travel arrangements for after-school activities.
Perhaps one of the greatest steppingstones is taking on part-time employment. This allows a child to earn their own money and gain some financial literacy, but also take a step into the adult world. At work, a young person needs to interact with people outside their bubble, they need to take direction from a boss, manage their time, use their initiative, and build relationships. A part-time job is a wonderful rite of passage and the rewards for your child will go far beyond the joy of their first paycheque.
2. A gradual letting go
The second part of this process is a philosophical shift by adults in the lives of children. In our interactions with young people, we need to look at:
How we speak
How we interact
How we respond
If we do not gradually change how we interact with young people as they develop, we do not encourage them into adulthood and we cannot then blame them if they are not prepared.
Terry Niebling is Deputy Principal - Head of Senior School, at Lourdes Hill College. He is very conscious of the College’s role in transitioning young people into adulthood. On the very first day of Year 11, Terry invites the girls to begin this stage of their education as, ‘independent, responsible young adults’. He also asks them to make a commitment to contribute to the trust and culture of Senior School.
Words are not enough, so Terry takes the approach that in working with young adults, “We need to listen. We do not always need a rule, we do not always have to have the last word and we need to say, ‘yes’ as often as possible”. Terry advocates for a flexible approach to working with young people that is more closely aligned with life beyond the school uniform.
It may go against the grain of traditional schooling, which is highly protective, but it is Lourdes Hill’s experience that most students step up and embrace their freedoms and responsibilities. In fact, they are hungry for it. Of course, challenges arise, but when they do there is an opportunity to coach the young person, so they learn and take a step closer to adulthood.
Terry runs professional learning sessions where this approach is explored and encouraged with young teachers and emerging leaders. It is testament to the College’s faith in this common-sense approach to education.
What can parents do to support their transitioning teens?
Parents can consider little changes that make a big difference:
1. Rather than stopping kids from taking action that you think could end badly, ask them, “What is your plan?” You may be surprised by how much thought has gone into their decision. If necessary, you can then coach. Young people want you to believe in them first, the details can be sorted out after that.
2. If you don’t want kids to behave like little children, think about how you are speaking to them. How we respond to them is also important. Listen more. Listen to understand rather than to fix.
3. Be deliberate about what you celebrate. What are the steps you want your child to make on the way into adulthood? Establish your own rites of passage.
4. Many of the blanket rules we impose take away a child’s opportunity for emerging judgement. They also do not allow for the natural differences in kids’ experiences and personalities. Guidelines and discussion may be a better approach than hard and fast rules.
5. Increase freedoms at the same rate you increase responsibilities. If you loosen your control, there will be times when your child will struggle and possibly fail. That is normal and those times will allow for growth. However, be there as a coach and their greatest supporter.
It is every parent’s mission to keep their child safe. It is every teenager’s mission to no longer need their parents’ protection. Somewhere in the middle we can stop, face the same direction, and navigate the journey to adulthood together. Our kids are going to become adults with or without us, better we are working together.