‘...to defend a country you need an army. But to defend a civilisation you need schools. The single most important social institution is the place where we hand on our values to the next generation...’ Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs.
Arguably the most important things schools do is teach children the difference between right and wrong. At the core of this vital lesson which schools teach all day, all year, through their behaviour, sanctions, reward, and conduct policies, and through the behaviour and conduct of the staff and senior pupils, in the minutiae of what is merely ignored, what is tacitly tolerated, and what is noticed and dealt with.
The teaching of right and wrong sits on three vital pillars – actions, consequences and responsibility. When children do things which are wrong (actions), they may often need to be shown what consequences (good and bad) follow from these actions. Reward policies show how good actions lead to good consequences: hard work to achievement; kindness to good quality relationships; patience to satisfaction. But children also need to learn that bad actions lead to malign consequences – idleness to loss of opportunity; untruthfulness to a lack of trust; wilfulness to harm.
A key element of this process involves responsibility. It is in taking responsibility for a poor educational outcome that a child learns the value of hard work and practice; it is in taking responsibility for another child’s unhappiness that a child learns the malignancy of unkindness; it is in the acknowledgement of wilfulness that a child learns to stay within moral boundaries.
In other words, the key moral discovery children make in learning right-from-wrong is to mitigate their selfish desires with thought about consequences, and their responsibility for these consequences. And so, at the heart of the ‘right and wrong message’ is delayed gratification.
Increasingly, however, I am hearing from other headteachers that parents are seeking to excuse their children from the consequences, and therefore from all responsibility for their inappropriate behaviour. Parents seeking – lovingly, they believe – to shield their children from the result of misbehaviour are actually teaching their children that the action need not have a consequence, and that they can avoid responsibility for their actions. Once a child becomes accustomed to this, they may begin to learn the political behaviour which enables them so to manipulate their parents that they can rely on their parents to defend them, whatever the circumstances.
And who suffers from this? Of course it makes life more difficult for teachers and heads. In the long run, it will also make life more difficult for parents. But in the short, medium and long run, it damages the children. Jonathan Sachs again: ‘We know – it has been measured in many experiments – that children with strong impulse control grow to be better adjusted, more dependable, achieve higher grades in school and college and have more success in their careers than others. Success depends on the ability to delay gratification...’
If you are reading this, and you are a parent, please hold your child accountable for their actions. Do not necessarily believe your child(ren) as they seek to excuse themselves from moral responsibility. Help your child(ren)’s school to do the same. Support them as they do so.
If you are working in a school, as a teacher or headteacher, be reassured. The same battle is being fought in schools all over the world. It is a battle for values, for value, for civilisation. It is worth fighting.