Plain advice is no confidence trick

4th December 1998 at 00:00
I HAVE just begun to read - I admit with some initial reluctance - Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer's Motivating Your Child. Having no child to motivate I felt no great need for advice about helping "children get the best from themselves".

What struck me at once is that Motivating Your Child is one of those rare books containing common sense which, when first read, seems to be too obvious to need repetition. But then the reader realises that for years the obvious truth has escaped most people's attention. "Giving children everything they ask for does not automatically make them feel good deep down." If you wonder "What's new?", remember that half the country will forget that excellent maxim at Christmas.

For those of us who are past practical advice, the book offers insight into society as well as the behaviour of the families in it. Consider Ms Hartley-Brewer's condemnation of parents who, impelled by "educational one-upmanship" search for activities at which their sons and daughters visibly excel. There is a growing social and economic divide between the do-nothing children and the do-everything ones. While many children certainly do under-achieve, having few opportunities to discover unexplored talents: others are in danger of being over extended - managed, monitored and chivvied all day long.

I can imagine the pleasure with which that will be read by the anti-egalitarians among the educational establishment. True, the pressures of affluence - from too many presents to too much emphasis on success - may have an adverse effect. But with such a range of parental attitudes - from the indolent poor to the hyper-active prosperous - what a waste of time for people like me to argue for a system which aims to give every child an equal chance.

That, I hasten to say, is not Ms Hartley-Brewer's position, she is happily unpolitical. But bubbling under the surface of all the advice is the need to do more for the disadvantaged child - disadvantaged because poverty breeds ignorance. More lives are ruined by ignorance than by cruelty.

Parents of all classes fail to encourage their children's self-esteem. And it is reasonable to assume that the highly ambitious middle classes are most likely to warn their sons and daughters, "More of this and you will end up on the scrap heap". But (to paraphrase the old music hall joke) at least they can have their confidence undermined in comfort.

There is, of course, a chapter - well at least five pages - which deals with the contribution that teachers can make to greater motivation. It quotes Institute of Education research, conducted for the National Commission on Education, which sets out the conditions which encourage creative learning. The proportion of space given to schools, as compared with families, is an accurate assessment of their relative importance where motivating the young is concerned. Ms Hartley-Brewer brings out the Marxist that lurks inside me. In the end it is money in the bank that makes all the difference.

Let me not give the impression that Motivating Your Child is unequivocally on my side of all the education arguments - lest it should be publicly burned in the squares outside grammar schools. For example, Ms Hartley-Brewer suggests that mixed ability teaching may lower the self-esteem of the least able reader. But her book does make out an elegant case for what used to be called "compensatory education": providing the extra resources to help disadvantaged children.

"The positive feedback, through realistic praise, encouragement and approval", that the Institute of Education regards as important, can help make up for the lack of interest at home. Too often an understaffed profession do not have time to provide it.

And if you think the need to help the underprivileged is overstated, remember the basic fact about Motivating Your Child. The parents who need it most will not read it.

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