Wrapping pupils in cotton-wool is a poor lesson in realities of life

As the children head back to school, Colette Sheridan asks if it is time to stop wrapping them in cotton wool?
Wrapping pupils in cotton-wool is a poor lesson in realities of life

“Parents want to protect their offspring from the harsh realities of life. But in their rush to create a perfect childhood for their offspring, they are in danger of giving their kids unrealistic expectations.” Picture: Stock

THE old saying that school days are the best days of our lives must have been dreamed up by a misery guts.

Because for many people of a certain age, school was hellish, a place where social class was important and a whack from a hard-backed duster was supposed to put manners on you.

If you came from the wrong side of the tracks, some teachers could be mean towards you. I remember in primary school a teacher asking every member of my class of eight year olds what our fathers worked at. All I knew was that my father worked in an office. It just about passed muster whereas the girl who said her dad was a coalman got a pitiful look. I don’t remember anyone saying their father was unemployed. That would have been an admission too far in an unforgiving era. There was no question of our mothers having jobs outside the home.

The sole bit of nosiness on the part of the teacher centred around the size of our fathers’ pay-packets and whether or not they were manual workers. 

If a contemporary child reported such a classroom interrogation, there would be war. The teacher would come in for a huge drubbing. Some would call for her head on a plate. Others would fulminate. And that can only be a good thing.

In today’s world, we are hyper-sensitive towards children. We have a better insight into how their minds work. Parents want to protect their offspring from the harsh realities of life. But in their rush to create a perfect childhood for their offspring, they are in danger of giving their kids unrealistic expectations.

Yes, childhood should be about fun and positive affirmation. But to ensure that children are equipped for the big bad world, they should be exposed to disappointment and, dare I say it, failure.

Because life will throw plenty of negatives at them. It’s not what happens to us, but how we respond to it. Children need to learn resilience so that when things inevitably go wrong, they can acknowledge it, learn from it - and move on, stronger and more self-reliant.

Psychotherapist, Stella O’Malley, author of ‘Bully-Proof Kids and Cotton Wool Kids,’ said in the Irish Times a few years ago that children and teenagers have misinterpreted today’s m essages about mental health. They think they should feel happy all the time. Whatever gets in the way of their happiness should be avoided.

“I believe this is linked to an extraordinary rise in a lack of resilience,” Stella.

“Back in the day, people were stoical and enduring but now, although we’re very thoughtful, compassionate and self-aware, our children and teenagers have lost their resilience. We’ve been so busy attending to mental health issues that we’ve forgotten to teach our children resilience.”

The result of wrapping youngsters in cotton-wool, over-praising them and preventing them from being copped on to reality can result in an inability to tolerate stress. They can be overly introspective and overly sensitive to their own feelings. A bit of metaphorical rough and tumble is preferable to cosseting kids and creating expectations that can’t actually be met in later life.

The current craze for praising children at all costs - even when they don’t merit it - is folly. 

Really, coming last in a running race ought not to be an opportunity to present a trophy, no matter how modest. Instead, the child should be acknowledged for having doing their best, tempered with the advice that they might train harder if they want to move up the ranks. In other words, praise should be focused on effort. Otherwise, real achievements are meaningless.

Thankfully, we live in a time when school days can be genuinely great days. Witness the photograph in The Echo last Wednesday of the introductory day for first-year pupils at a Cork school. The school principal posed with a couple of kids, all enjoying burgers barbecued for lunch. Tis far from barbecues in the school yard that us oldies were dragged up. More likely, we ate an apple for our elevenses and walked home for dinner at 1pm. Do you remember those days? They weren’t great. Corporal punishment was on its last legs but I can still remember being hit across the hands by primary school teachers that either didn’t know any better or chose to unquestioningly dole out such punishment.

Now, the school experience is all about positivity. Which is a good thing as long as lessons in resilience are experienced. We have come full circle, to a ridiculous extent in some ways. Every child is now deemed an academic success, regardless of their true capabilities. As a friend remarked, a little crudely, perhaps, but very accurately: “They all have masters degrees coming out their arses.” Quite.

More in this section

Sponsored Content

Add Echolive.ie to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more