Saturday 19 January 2019

Comment: Don't blame your children's teachers for teenage kicks

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Catherine O'Mahony

Catherine O'Mahony

A story this week has shone a light on something curious about modern Irish life.

The bare bones are as follows: it’s been reported that two boys from a Dublin fee-paying school allegedly paid for sex with prostitutes during an overseas trip. The students apparently left their accommodation without permission and went to a bar where they met the women. They may or may not (depending on the report), have brought the women back to their accommodation.

It has been reported that the school is considering disciplinary action against the teacher who was responsible for the welfare of the students.

I don’t know much more about this incident but I feel am safe in making a few assumptions.

One, the boys in question would have been at least 16 or 17 (the legal age of consent). I don’t think schools would bring anyone much younger on an overseas charity trip.

Two, the boys were of sound mind (in as much as a teenager can be) and thus capable of exercising free will in leaving their accommodation without permission.

Three, the teacher involved was probably distraught about the matter.

If the above assumptions are correct, why in heaven is the first response from practically everyone I know to sympathise entirely with the hapless students?

“Sure they’re only young lads,” one person said to me. “They’re clueless. They’d have no idea how to handle that sort of situation.”

“The school shouldn’t have taken them if they couldn’t keep tabs on them,” someone else remarked, tutting sympathetically.

This argument I take, up to a point. The school should have kept tabs on them, should have ensured their set-up was safe. And also, anyone with a mature brain and adult sensibility would have recognised the risks inherent in what the students did and probably concluded it would be A Very Bad Idea.

It’s true that teenagers – even those who attend fee-paying schools and are thus (rightly or wrongly) assumed to come from “good families” – have underdeveloped brains, and so some will take what most of us would regard as stupid risks. But they still have a choice.

Teen misbehaviour is obviously not new. Back in the dark ages, I remember being on a school weekend retreat as a 16-year-old and finding classmates swigging vodka behind their missals during the Sunday morning prayer service. When my all-girls Catholic school took us on a week-long school trip, half the bus was pole-axed by alcohol by the time we reached our destination.

None of that made any sense and yet it happened, and my clear understanding then and now was that the teachers who were in charge of us, even though they were on the bus as well, were pretty much powerless to prevent it (short of breathalysing the students).

Teenagers are inventive. They can find a way to transgress, if transgression is on their minds. And, in my view, they need to carry at least some responsibility for that. I didn’t join the vodka swiggers, for instance, because I thought it was a pointless thing to do. Had they been rumbled, moreover, I knew there would have been big trouble, and none of it would have been directed to the school. We kids would have been regarded as old enough to have made their own decisions to drink or not while on retreat.

I wonder what it says about us these days that so many of us are comfortable with regarding our children – even those who are well into their teens – as helpless lambs at loose in a dangerous world?

Is it the inevitable fall-out of the helicopter parenting so many of us engage in? Is it a harbinger of worse to come. In a few years, will we be insisting (as some American parents do) on attending our offspring’s first job interview.

Are our expectations of our kids really this limited?

In this latest case – and once again I must confess I have no inside track – it’s probably safe to assume that the teacher had made clear to the teenagers on the trip that they were expected to follow the rules, and that those rules implicitly, if not explicitly, meant not engaging with prostitutes.

Short of padlocking the group inside their bedrooms or bursting in on them every 10 minutes – either approach would probably have gotten the teacher fired – is there much more anyone can do?

Every parenting manual I’ve ever read has emphasised the importance of teaching children the importance of personal responsibility, and of giving them the right amount of responsibility at the right age.

The idea is that this is what, eventually, helps them evolve into decent human beings.

So what, if that’s the case, will happen if we take all the responsibility away from them?

On this one, I am Team Teacher.

Irish Independent

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