This week there was a story in the news about a school where the head teacher wrote a letter to parents, politely asking them to stop dropping off their children in the mornings while still wearing their pyjamas. Only a week or so earlier, another head teacher had written a similar letter, asking parents to make sure that their children had a shower and wore clean clothes to school. On the face of it, these seemed like perfectly reasonable requests, dressed up in very polite language. In our house, the kids have regular showers – it’s not a difficult thing to do. I just put the hot water on and shout up the stairs at them to “get in the shower!”. And you certainly wouldn’t catch me turning up at school in my PJs, mainly because I’d be too embarrassed, but also because the school is a mile’s walk away along muddy country lanes. If I overslept, I might throw a coat over my tracksuits and take the kid in by car, so she could jump out without anyone spotting my inappropriately slovenly attire. But this would definitely be a one-off event, not a regular occurrence.
One of my most vivid memories of infant school is of the day that a child wet himself in our classroom. When the teacher discovered the pool of urine beneath his seat, she made him stand up on the table in front of the class and she publicly shamed him. They used a similar ‘shaming’ technique at the middle school that I attended, at the end of each year, to ensure that we knew our place in the grand scheme of things. When the exam results came out, we would be given a ranking order within the class, from 1 to 33. Our ranking number was called out, and we would each have to stand up, in turn, in front of the class. I was lucky because my ranking was usually in the top three, so I got a hearty round of applause from my peers. Life wasn’t so sweet, I would imagine, for the child at number 33.
If you have a problem with one or several of your parents, or indeed with one or several of your students, the very last thing you should do is to make a public announcement about it, especially in these days of social media, 24 hour news and a press hungry for scandal. By sending a letter to all your parents, you are not only making the point to the parents concerned, you are making the point publicly to the parents who didn’t even do this thing in the first place, and effectively to the press as well. By doing it in this way, you are trying to use the power of shame to induce a change in behaviour, even if that honestly wasn’t your intention. I would never claim to be a perfect parent. I do plenty of stuff that would not pass muster for a parenting manual. Sometimes I accidentally swear in front of my kids. Sometimes I let them stay up later than they should. Sometimes I can’t be bothered to chase them off their computers, or hassle them to do homework. But if a school ever wrote a letter designed to get me to cease and desist in my bad parenting ways, and they sent it to all the other parents at the school as well, I would find myself seriously affronted.
The point about children is that they don’t get to choose their parents but, generally speaking, no matter how crap their parents are, they love us all the same. Yes, some parents are not as aspirational or tiger mum/dad-ish as governments or schools might want; yes, some parents (me included) could do with bucking up our ideas at times. But after that letter had gone out, how would a child feel if he or she was the one brought to school by a parent in pyjamas? Or if he or she was the one who didn’t have a shower that weekend (maybe because the hot water got cut off)? Are the children meant to feel ashamed and embarrassed that they have parents who do not do these things? How exactly does that help children to learn? Where a school has concerns around child protection or neglect, there are clear procedures to follow. But stepping over that line to shame parents for the habit of school-run-pyjama-wearing is not part of the role. Maybe, instead of writing a letter to everyone at the school, a better approach would have been to have a quiet word with individual families, if they really felt that it was essential.
The thing about putting ourselves up on a pedestal in order to shame others, is that we had better make sure that we don’t make any mistakes ourselves after we’ve done it. Because people have very long memories, and they don’t like being told how to bring up their kids. They especially don’t like being told that you disapprove of what they do, as though you were somehow ‘better’ than them. So no, not shame on me. And no, not shame on you. Just isn’t it a damn shame, to focus on shaming, and not on support?