Thursday 17 January 2019

Buddy syndrome: Parents who try to be their children’s best friends are 'doing more harm than good'

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Camilla Turner

Parents who try to be their children’s best friends are doing more harm than good, a leading headmaster has said.

Mothers and Fathers are increasingly succumbing to “buddy syndrome”, according to Dr Martin Stephen, the principal of The National Mathematics and Science College.

The imposition of clear parent-child boundaries is crucial for a child’s development, he argues.

Dr Stephen explained that parents must be able to “dictate unreasonable times for the child to be home by, to limit screen time and to sniff for the cigarette in the bedroom, as well as to hug the child when the longed-for invitation to the party doesn’t come, someone else is given the best role in the school play or the bike falls over with you on it”.

Writing in the Times Education Supplement, he added: “Parents are there to set boundaries, boundaries which may provoke annoyance but also give security.

“Children can kick against those boundaries, but in so doing learn and learn again how to negotiate if they want changes.”

Mr Stephen, who was previously the High Master of St Paul's School, said that another “unfortunate development” of recent years is the trend for parents to “ferociously defend” their child regardless of what they have done.

He recalled watching a sports match where a boy committed a foul and was sent off the pitch by the referee.

The boy’s father later shouted at the referee for being “blind” and “ignorant”, while rubbing his son’s shoulders and saying, “It wasn’t your fault, son.” 

Dr Stephen said children must learn that actions have consequences, rather than being led to believe blame can be shifted elsewhere.  “If we defend our children regardless, we bring them up never to accept responsibility for their actions,” he said.

“It’s someone else’s problem to solve if they’re not working hard enough, or fooling around in class.” Dr Stephen, who is the author of a book titled English Public School: A Personal and Irreverent History, said that “buddy syndrome” is rife among parents and prevents children from developing grit and determinism.

“The ‘my child can do no wrong’ parent encourages the child to think what they wish to happen is theirs by right – and that only they have rights,” he said.

“Children sometimes need to fight – and lose – their own battles, hurt us as parents though it may. They need to learn to earn their rewards: to graft for them.”

His sentiments echoed those of Barnaby Lenon, the ex-headmaster of Harrow and current chair of the Independent Schools Council.

In his book, Much Promise, he wrote: “Boys need disciplining by schools and parents. They need it… and, what is more, they can take it.” Mr Lenon argued that boys are grossly underperforming, falling behind and getting into trouble because too many fathers want to be their son’s best friends and fail to enforce the discipline that boys need to thrive.

“Authority has been transferred from parents to children in the last 50 years and boys are paying the price,” Mr Lenon wrote.

“Sometimes dads are trying too hard to be boys’ best friends. Because boys particularly need firm discipline, they have become more disadvantaged. There is a reason to be worried about boys.”

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