Doing the right thing isn't easy when they're yours

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
"It's the parents' fault!" It's a cry I often hear from colleagues at the exclusion unit where I work after another student has stepped out of line.

Recently, Steve threatened a member of staff. "I'd better not meet you up the shopping centre or you're six foot under, mate!" he cried. Finger wagging, scowl on his face, as he was taken away in the family car.

The family was upset that Steve was being excluded and hoped that the outburst was just hot air. Having seen Steve headbutt another student, we weren't so sure. But they had responded to our request to collect their son. Others aren't so helpful. They're at work. Couldn't we phone the other parent to come and collect? As so many of our pupils have divorced or separated parents, this is often the ploy - not only to show their lack of concern but also to score points against their ex-partner.

Meanwhile, back in the staffroom, we talk through today's incident. At some stage, the issue of parental guidance and role models will be mentioned. In my early days in teaching, if a student was doing something unacceptable, such as spitting, swearing or sitting with their feet on the table, you could say "would you do that at home?" with a reasonable chance that the student would look abashed, decide that such behaviour would not, in fact, be acceptable at home, and the issue would be closed. Now, such a question is far more likely to get a response of "yes", or that Mum's latest boyfriend does it.

As the staffroom discussion descends into depression at the futility of it all, one starts to wonder how families can ignore, or be unable to respond to, the anti-social behaviour of their offspring. Fly-on-the-wall programmes about super-nannies and super-brats might offer some insight, but I want to be entertained by television, not see the trailer for our next cohort. So I don't watch these programmes.

But then it happens to you.

My wife and I are in education. We've brought up three children. They kept their noses reasonably clean through school, and came out with a fair clutch of GCEGCSEs. They got a couple of degrees and other post-16 qualifications. No police records. Adult life looked good.

Now, 20 years after school ended for them, things look so different. One died suddenly. One would like a family but is medically incapable. One is an alcoholic.

We had visions of our dotage surrounded by hordes of grandchildren and our children successful in their own fields. We tried to offer a happy and supportive home. Activities were encouraged. We took the family away to interesting places for holidays that they talk about still. We sat round the table for Sunday lunch and played board games on rainy afternoons. We tried to offer a helping hand when it was needed. Our children, and some of their friends, saw us as the perfect role models.

But we have no grandchildren and there is no sign of any. Only one of the three is anywhere near successful at what she is doing, and her mind is diverted by her own medical condition. We ask ourselves where we went wrong, what we could do.

Our daughter receives as much love and affection as we think is right. We tell her not to worry and it will happen one day, but she knows she is part of our dream and her offspring are also part of that dream.

We continue to bail out the drunk. We fuel the habit by sending the occasional cheque. We think it's the only thing to do if we want him to retain something of a "normal" lifestyle. He manages to continue his work.

Drinking hasn't got to the stage of making him incapable. Suddenly all the staff supervision and Investors in People training seems utterly useless.

How do you approach your own son and ask him why he's got that bottle of gin at the back of the bookcase? How do you start the conversation about what makes him take a slug before breakfast? How, having lost one child, do you start to reconcile the fact that you're likely to lose another through the self-destruction of his digestive system?

Suddenly, I'm the same as the families of the kids at the unit. I know things aren't right, but I feel unable to do anything about it. How dare I criticise their inactivity?

The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, works with excluded students

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