The sweeping romance of Freddie Mercury’s lyrics in These are the days of our lives – however cheesy – are firm favourites as the school year ends. Parents, as well as their children, say emotional farewells not only to each other, but also to a chapter in their lives. Speech day passes in a flurry of prizes, hugs and tears – and then it's all gone. Routines which may have lasted a decade come abruptly to an end. For parents as well as children, this milestone is significant, carrying with it the inevitable baggage of the ups and downs of a child’s development through these highly formative years.
For many readers, you are just at the beginning of this journey and I offer a few tips and insights which will hopefully help to smooth the way. First, let's forget the children: starting prep school is an anxious time for parents and it manifests in strange ways. Even with weekly visits from boarders’ parents, from the car park onwards, the politics can often begin. It is a peculiar way of getting to know people: seeing faces regularly but infrequently, without formal introduction, and building a picture as obscure as a Modigliani. Everyone is in the same boat yet each tackles it differently. Some scuttle, some sweep along, some embrace with effusive enthusiasm and some appear infuriatingly connected in.
Significant groups appear to know each other, several of these with the social ease and effortless quantity of ‘65’ plates and designer ware to grace a magazine cover. Some will have the same poise with a battered Mondeo and some will be the very reverse, with Freelander and Ray Bans covering the crowsfeet of worry. Impossible to tell, but these are symptoms that we all share. We are all there in a strange twilight zone where learning about one another, and making friends, is partly dictated by how our children interact and their shared interests.
Your daughter being top in Latin or chief goal scorer can work wonders for your social standing – or not?! It ends up being all about confidence, rather than achievement.
One of the things I try to impress upon prospective parents is the need to embrace and confront failure; we do not promise perfection and life rarely goes smoothly. This is as it should be, because such a prep school path has some risk; the higher the hurdle, the richer the reward. As this bumpy road unfolds there are moments of high anxiety for parents, not least because it is the time when children begin to loosen the bonds between themselves and their parents, who are so hardwired to help them and try to catch them if they fall.
This is where teachers come in and – to a degree – other parents. They are often the lightning rod down which the emotions of either a parent or child – or both – are conducted or cushioned in the face of a drama, real or imagined. It seems important to me to keep in mind that (for that moment and that person) a drama is a drama, however trifling it might appear. That is not the same as saying ‘indulge the histrionics’ but simply the need to consider it from a range of view points as you help tackle it.
The change of routine in starting a new school can have an impact in every kind of department. Not to be indelicate, but an anxious mother built up a crescendo of worries because her little boy was apt, periodically, to go ‘off the grid’ at pick up time. New routines and diet – and worries too – meant he simply had to take himself off for a long sit down in the loo before getting in the car to go home, and did not feel able to indicate this to either mother or teacher. Neither of them was thinking through his 8 year-old’s preoccupations. This was a case of thinking inside the box!
The result of this is that the relationships between teachers, their pupils and parents are often very intense and held dear for whole lifetimes. To have achieved this is something to treasure and much spoken about by my former pupils, but how can we ensure it happens? Open and honest communication is vital, where parents can balance an ‘arm’s length’ approach (which is so helpful to the busy and efficient teacher) with useful observations about how they feel their child is changing or feeling. Of course, this signifies trust and respect and these values have to be won by both the teacher and the school.
At the start there is likely to be much greater traffic, but balance is the key: it is worth remembering that the teacher is trying to forge his or her own relationship with your child, not via you. Prep school education is that gradual process of drawing children away from their parents, enabling them to form relationships of their own.
Above all, try not to worry and certainly do not express that worry to your children! Do seek help from the school; it may come unprompted. Opportunities for families to gather help familiarise us all with faces and names. These friendships can be so fulfilling as we go through the hurly burly of child-rearing together and can often be tantalisingly late to bloom. But do not compare your children with others, as all children are different! Above all, simply remember that if children are happy and thriving, then they will very likely become more confident and more adventurous. They will try new things and succeed in some of them. Your job is to try and stand back and allow them to find their way. It should be some of the best days of their school lives.