Responsibility must rest with parents

1st September 2006 at 01:00
Teachers and children, obviously, go on holiday at the same time. My guess is that this leads to many teachers having their eyes opened to the way a minority of children behave when they're on the loose. I reckon, too, that it's going to be a staffroom conversation topic at the start of term, because this isn't an area of life where things are getting any better.

Suppose, for example, you're a holiday entertainer trying to run a quiz in a show lounge while a group of unruly kids is racing round the room.

Simple, you think. You just tell them to stop. That's what the young woman did who told me this story. "I warned them time and again. They took no notice and eventually they said, 'We're children. Playing is what children do'."

Smart thinking? Or were they repeating what their parents had told them to say if challenged? Oh, I know we need a sense of proportion. I had my share of good-humoured banter with youngsters on my holiday, and some good games of chess. Those kids were great - most are. A few, though, are - well - just jaw-droppingly unbelievable. And the worrying thing is that the wild bunch is visibly increasing in numbers year by year, to the point where in some places it's reaching a critical mass.

It's not their fault of course. "Playing is what children do," is absolutely right. When it goes wrong, it's usually down to a lack of a sense by parents of what's appropriate. "This little girl was hurdling from seat to seat around the edge of the ballroom," said one elderly man to me.

"I went up to her dad and suggested that as people had to sit on the seats, maybe she shouldn't do it. He just looked at me as if I was mad."

A lot has to do with the kind of family holidays that people choose. Take these two groups - real examples from this summer. In both cases a number of children of primary age from different families teamed up. Off the leash, they ran around shouting, climbing, dodging in and out, hiding, generally becoming manic and sweaty as only children of that age can. One of the two groups was on a campsite in a French wood. They had the time of their lives in a safe place, raising indulgent smiles, bringing adults together. They were living out the kind of summer some of us remember from long ago - and maybe the fact that even many parents are too young to have experienced this kind of freedom is part of the problem.

The other group, same age, same behaviour, was, would you believe, on a cruise ship. Their playground consisted of stairs, lifts, corridors, show lounges and bars. And the open decks of course, often late at night with the sea speeding by 60 feet below.

Most of the passengers eventually succeeded in ignoring them - or at least banishing them to a sort of subliminal level. You'd be standing at the bar and one would flash by on the periphery like a Messerschmitt glimpsed from a Lancaster bomber. "What the f*** was that, Skipper?"

Some adult passengers, though, weren't at all happy - those who wanted to use the dance floor for dancing, for instance, or the slightly infirm ones who felt threatened by fast-moving little bodies. There were quite a lot of teachers on this particular holiday. Many, needless to say, were outraged - not so much by the children themselves as by the lack of any apparent awareness of the problem, either by the parents (and don't think for a moment that this is a class issue) or the management. So, for example, when complainants asked why a member of staff running a gameshow didn't just stop and refuse to go on until parents got their children under control, she responded that she didn't feel she had enough authority for that. The idea that everyone else in the room would have applauded hadn't occurred to her.

The contrast with life in a well-ordered school with written policies and clear lines of support for staff all the way to the top, struck me forcibly. It takes an encounter with an organisation which hasn't worked out how it's done to make you appreciate the courage, tenacity, insight and imagination that is involved. Someone said to a teacher on our holiday, "So could you do any better?" The teacher stared at the absurdity of the question. "Why yes, actually," she said. And you knew she was right.


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