When parents struggle…. (Educating Essex)

When parents struggle, who takes the blame? Who bears the shame?

This blog is prompted by an exchange of tweets between me (@Itsmotherswork) and another tweeter after the latest episode of Educating Essex.

Backstory: Educating Essex (Channel 4: Thursdays) is a brilliant, moving, revelatory, inspiring account of everyday life in a school (Passmores in Harlow) that is both outstanding and ordinary. Ordinary in that its intake looks and feels like any other in a co-educational comprehensive; outstanding in that the love of the staff, for all the young people and for teaching, shines through the programme like a glittering thread.

The programme underlines something that all adults need to understand; that children and young people are they way they are because we (the adults around them) are the way we are.

This week's episode focused on Vinni – a 'model student' when he started at the school, but displaying deteriorating behaviour since the break-up of his parents marriage. The programme ends with Vinni being taken into local authority care because his mother, with whom he has been living, cannot cope. He remains a student at Passmores, his Headteacher Mr Goddard and PE teacher Miss Conway (among others) wrapping him up in the care, attention, expectation and faith that his home life seems to lack.

The twitter exchange started when I spotted a comment about Vinni's mum, who had turned him out of the family home.

The tweeter wrote: Vinni's mum should feel utterly ashamed of herself.

Imw: And the Dad?

Tweeter: well, we never got to hear from him, but I'm guessing selfish and ignorant.

Imw: Very likely, so possibly a little harsh to heap all the shame on mum…

T: the Dad didn't kick him out and allow him to go into care

Imw: Of course he did. If his Dad would have had Vinni to live with him, a residential placement would not have been needed. Social workers look to family first.

T: That was never going to be an option, but yet she still kicked him out. Where did she think he would end up?

Imw: Why was that never going to be an option? Your attitude seems to be that the parent who abandons parenting first carries no responsibility and the parent who is left parenting with only half the resources carries all the shame if that falls apart. I'm suggesting responsibility is 50/50.

T: Because he had already abandoned them! Sad, but that's how it is. Being a single parent is twice as hard and twice the responsibility.

Imw: Indeed it is. So you adding the burden of all the shame when it is difficult to cope seems particularly unfair.

******

We shouldn't heap shame onto parents who are trying but failing to raise their children well alone. In principle, this isn't a gender-based issue. If you're male or female and the partner with whom you brought your children into the world, or into your family, abandons you, you do find yourself with double the work and half the resources. Some people will still manage to cope in this situation, but not everyone can. A parent who has abdicated practical responsibility for parenting remains morally responsible for what follows and is just as accountable for what happens to their children despite the fact that they have chosen to step away. Before we wag our fingers at the parent who stayed, we should consider that.

In practice, this is a gender-based issue, because more often than not when a relationship breaks down mothers and children stay together and it is fathers who disappear from the home. That's why I particularly dislike the idea that a mother who is not coping should be "ashamed" while a father who walks away is exonerated: "Sad, but that's how it is".

As well as there being humane reasons for not seeking to shame parents who can't keep their families together, there are practical reasons why shaming is unhelpful. The most obvious of these is that it gets in the way of parents seeking help early on when they have problems. The more often we reinforce a model which implies that parents have to cope alone until their shameful failure propels their children into the arms of the state, the more difficult we make it for parents to turn to sources of support earlier when they first need it, and to accept and trust the support that is available. Lots of parents, whether parenting together or alone, struggle sometimes to keep their children steady on the journey to adulthood. Wealthy parents can outsource some of their caring responsibilities (boarding schools, adventure holidays, out of school activities, extra tuition) and often do so, with no shame attached. Families with more limited resources should feel able to call on the support of children's centres, schools, youth services, parenting and family support programmes etc. without fearing any stigma.

I don't think Vinni's mum (or Vinni's Dad for that matter) should feel ashamed about what has happened to their son, though they may both feel sad and worried. I think they should both feel responsible, both be held accountable and should both be encouraged to work with all the organisations that can help and support them as they try to settle their son again and make him feel secure once more in their love, even if they can't maintain their own relationship. One of the key supporting organisations for that particular family is obviously Passmores school. A day ago the Head Teacher, Mr Goddard, tweeted in response to a question about Vinni that he had seen the boy's mum that day. Close to Vinni and to his family situation, Mr Goddard isn't wasting time blaming or shaming, he's doing the things a person can always do to help another person in difficulties – maintaining a relationship, keeping the lines of communication open, showing that he cares.

I understand that in Episode 7 of the series, we will find out how Vinni gets on in his GCSEs. With Passmores' help, I would really love to see him do well. I hope we will also find that the support of the school community, social workers and others has helped him to repair his relationship with his parents too.  

Educating Essex is compelling television, and an important and honest contribution to our understanding of the challenges and rewards of teaching in a modern comprehensive. There's a hashtag often used in tweets about the programme and the school: #proudofpassmores That's exactly right. The values that make Passmores exemplary have nothing to do with shame and everything to do with pride.

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2 thoughts on “When parents struggle…. (Educating Essex)

  1. I am a single parent, and I have always been so, my son being a posthumous child. Where I differ from the above analysis is that on the evidence of the programme as I saw it, Vinni’s mum was nowhere to be seen until the decision to place him in care was made. And when she did appear it seemed (at least to me) that she seemed more interested in justifying her own decision-making than addressing the underlying issues. (In saying this I am aware I went to the loo, made tea, etc so may have missed a bit. I am also aware that I have /very/ pronounced views on ‘good’ parenting. Apologies for any bias which results.).I concur that letting Vinni’s father slip away from his responsibility to his son is unfair. But Vinni’s mother accepted the single parent role, as I have, and with that comes enhanced responsibility, however uneven the resultant distribution of the parenting load.Counsels of perfection from those of us lucky enough to not have to face the issues Vinni’s behavioural problems presents are of course easy to offer: but I on the evidence I have seen, I think a measure of shame being felt by both Vinni’s parents might actually help both them and Vinni in the long run.They both brought him into the world. His mother accepted the responsibility of raising him alone. On the evidence I have seen they have failed, in part at least from a reluctance to accept those responsibilities and act accordingly. Their son is now obviously unhappy, underachieving and in care. I know I would feel shame at having failed my son to such an extent.

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