From child-centred to self-centred?

1st September 2000 at 01:00
Is 1960s-style liberal parenting to blame for creating a generation of acquisitive, loutish teenagers?

CHILDREN today have more worldly goods than their parents or grandparents would have thought possible. They are often blase beyond belief, worldwise if not world-weary, linked to distant continents by television and the Internet, and with a freedom of action unknown to their parents.

They are free too of many traditional virtues and of the sanctions which helped to instil them. Obedience, respect for others and older people, tolerance, humility, patience are seen as the ridiculous vestiges of the past. Parents find it hard to say "No", and the education establishment has been against doing so for reasons of ideology, having eliminated notions of right and wrong from the academic and moral curriculum.

It is no surprise that in such a world, notions of right and wrong become hazy. "When children are taken in for an offence," a police officer put it, "we are often the first people who have said 'No' to them." Everywhere, the tale is of a changed generation of 'softy' parents, neither will they discipline their children at home nor will they tolerate tough discipline at school for their offspring.

Disciplining a child is hard work unless one starts very young, but even then the child will meet very few others whose parents are "quite so strict". At every turn the parent is told of a world beyond their apparently narrow and contemptible perspectives, a world where other parents purchase expensive and unnecessary clothes, trainers, computer games, and are lax about bedtime hours, videos and even films which have a certificate for an older age than that of the child in question. The impact of other children's views is reinforced by the gods of popular culture who determine behaviour - football heroes who lose their temper and menace or attack another player or the new wave female rock stars.

Even where parents believe in right and wrong and work hard to instruct and reinforce good behaviour (often balancing new mores with old), they will find a different order at primary school. The very idea of a moral upbringing has been replaced by vague, often jargon-ridden discussion about appropriate r inappropriate responses Playground roughness, bad language, violence between children and often the most disgusting behaviour are the order of the day even at primary age and even in (nominally) Christian schools. Often, the breakdown of civility predominant in the school undoes the sense of respect and discipline which parents need in order to reinforce their own brave attempts to bring up their children.

In academic teaching the story is the same. A good teacher is the jewel in the crown of the school, bringing rigour and a love for truth to lessons which, in fact, also help develop moral virtues such as patience, humility, concentration and self-discipline. But how many such teachers are there?

We have seen the systematic destruction by a left-leaning education establishment of academic values in teaching those according to which one prizes what is true from what is false, which put the knowledge of the subject at the heart of teaching and which recognise that there are rules to be mastered and right to be distinguished from wrong. Able, hard-working pupils are despised officially by a system which overlooks them in favour of its own "hard cases".

In fact, as one headmaster put it, there exists an incentive system for bad behaviour which thereby victimises good pupils. Moreover, those with intellectual ability are treated with contempt indirectly by a curriculum which despises the intellect, and directly by many teachers, education officials and politicians. At the same time the weak are patronised and their education reduced to a social service rather than seen as an opportunity to train the mind and educate the whole person.

Today's children probably are spoiled and, if they have sense, when they grow up they will look back to their grandparents rather than to their parents for models of how to bring up their own children. But teachers should not take refuge in this fact and use it as an excuse for their own failings. The moral laxity of their pupils is at least as much their fault as that of parents, and the best way to correct the fault is not through any specifically moral training but through academic rigour.

Sheila Lawlor is director of the think- tank, Politeia

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