Here at Highgate, we just held a quiet celebration for the veterans in Year 11 who’d pulled so much out of the GCSE bag. This was really aimed at ensuring that bashfulness didn’t prevent the young from enjoying just a little parental adulation, with a few words to hammer home the admiration for all that had been achieved. Major embarrassment among the young at being in the spotlight, of course, and at mum or dad looking tearfully proud. But important licence for parents to articulate that pride and love in the face of self-evident adolescent insouciance!
I confess I was momentarily wrong-footed by a parent’s question about league tables (we did well, but I don’t love ‘em) asking if we measured children’s happiness, and whether comparative happiness league tables might not reassure parents that they’d made good choices for their children. I blithered testily, worrying out loud that league tables tend to drive actions (acres of print this summer on how performance tables have forced many a head’s hand). However, new day, new dawn, and the memory of that conversation sent me back to some work on how psychologists try to measure children’s wellbeing.
There are a number of questionnaires which can be used, and I was taken by the Warwick-Edinburgh Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS © NHS Health Scotland and Universities of Edinburgh and Warwick, 2006). Fourteen statements which young people rate 1 – 5 (‘none of the time’ to ‘all of the time’): ‘I’ve been feeling loved’; ‘I’ve had energy to spare’; I’ve been feeling optimistic about the future’. Good statements you’d hope to find. Revealing, too. But one, just this week, caught my eye again: ‘I’ve been able to make up my own mind about things.’
Year 11 pupils are facing big choices: what shall I do after GCSE? Which subjects shall I choose? Shall I change schools? If so, where shall I go? And all of us in schools are putting on events to help – evenings aimed at new recruits, subject fairs to help choose A levels and so on. But how do adults get involved? If a young person’s (if any person’s) wellbeing is underpinned, as it must be, by being able to make up one’s own mind, at being able to take your destiny into your own hands, what role the parent who carries the can, who has the experience, who does the loving, who wants the best? Do we have to sit on our hands and button our lips?
This is where Year 12s come in so wonderfully: after all, they’ve done it. A pot pourri of real quotes: ‘Be there for us. Be a presence, but don’t give advice until we ask for it. Make us meals. Give us lifts. Don’t get shrill. If we don’t tidy our rooms or bring down our dirty laundry, it doesn’t mean we are irrational about our A levels.’
And Year 12 parents say: ‘Your children will ask you for advice at the most inconvenient moment. Hold your nerve, and when the moment comes and you’re up to your eyes in tax returns or Christmas shopping, drop everything and listen. Listen first. The moment may not come again, so watch out for it and pounce.’
That night, desperate to get some shut-eye, I didn’t respond to a younger Pettitt’s invitation to look over some tricksy work after I had hauled myself into bed. I’ve not seen the chef d’œuvre since and fret I’ll not be asked again. That’s twice in one day I have not done well.
But then again (from Year 12): ‘Don’t beat yourself up. We don’t expect you to be perfect.’
The wisdom of children.