“Safe” and “Sound”: The Dilemmas of Parenthood
Oct 8, 2021
Following the Head of School Coffee Morning this week on the critically important topic of student well-being and safeguarding, I would like to reflect briefly on these complex and challenging issues.
Over the past week or so, we have received some messages from members of the Class of 2021, most of whom have now arrived at their chosen institution of tertiary learning and are now taking their first tentative steps as independent adults in the world beyond home and school. It is perhaps their parents who are most anxious, but even teachers will often spare a thought in an idle moment for those who have graduated and moved on, hoping that all is well, often hungry for reassuring news of progress, success, and happiness. For those of us left in the empty nest, it can be a lonely and confusing time. For those desperately wishing for the earliest possible arrival of the day of departure, there are many things to bear in mind as your child develops more adult dimensions and social interactions.
There are many dimensions to child safety and well-being that are vital to human development. A child is vulnerable to danger, ill-equipped to deal with the many routine, daily matters handled with practiced ease by adults. Managing the perilous journey from the helplessness of infancy to the mature self-efficacy of adulthood is complex and challenging. As parents, we may also feel ill-equipped to deal with the physical, practical, moral, and increasingly legal challenges that punctuate each child’s developmental journey.
No child is born or lives in a human social, economic, cultural, or political vacuum. Globally, childhood remains a hotly contested field with fierce debate over the principles, legal interpretations and accountabilities applicable to children; for children, there are starkly differing legal protections, education policies, cultural and religious practices, even political stances.
The most widely recognized international statement on the rights of the child is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations in 1989, and ratified by nearly all member states of the UN. It is a lengthy document containing 54 articles (https://www.unicef.org/child-rights-convention). Many of the articles in the Convention detail the legal protections signatory states are bound to put in place on behalf of children. Article 1 of the Convention defines a child as any person under the age of 18, unless under laws applicable to the child, their majority is attained earlier.
This last point is quite important. A child or minor is deemed to lack the maturity and judgement necessary to bear full legal responsibility of their actions and decisions. But if there is no instantaneous transformation that takes place on the day a person reaches adulthood, should we perhaps ask the question: at what point might an individual below the age of 18 be liable to bear some responsibility for their actions?
For example, the Hong Kong Juvenile Offenders Ordinance (CAP 226) states:
It shall be conclusively presumed that no child under the age of 10 years can be guilty of an offence (Section 3, CAP 226, Juvenile Offenders Ordinance)
A child is defined in the ordinance as a person who is under the age of 14; a young person is between the ages of 14 and 16; a person is 16 years of age or older. This implies that in principle, any child aged 10 and over may be guilty of an offence. In fact, in our own laws, we can see a narrowing gap (and increasing degree of accountability) between a very young individual who is legally defined as a child and the adult-like appearance of an individual that is presented to the world after the onset of puberty. This age of adolescence (defined by the World Health Organization as someone who is between the age of 10 and 19 https://www.who.int/health-topics/adolescent-health#tab=tab_1) is a contested and highly complex space.
For parents, raising an adolescent can mark a time of escalating tension, conflict, dilemma. We are not only dealing with the daily needs of our growing children, we are now bound by law to pay attention to the extent to which our children are legally responsible for their behaviour. We may also find highly divergent views on what constitutes good parenting. Where is the balance between controlling compliance and liberating latitude?
For each child, the journey through adolescence into adulthood is different. The risks, while similar, are unique to each child; the tools needed to survive are similarly generic, yet wielded in a unique manner and combination by each child on this journey; the conflicts over freedom, rights, and responsibilities are well documented, but still play out in a unique way for each child. As adults, parents, teachers – educators all – we find ourselves in a constant state of hyper-vigilance, as we carefully, often intuitively manage the balance of tension between risk and reward, hazard and health, dependence and independence, progress and stagnation; perhaps most dramatically, we stand watch over the gap between safety and danger – not just in the physical sense, but also the social, emotional, cognitive, cultural, and spiritual sense.
In seeking to keep our children safe, we run the risk of stifling exposure to the very experiences, and risks, that will shape their adult persona and character. By eliminating hazards of all types, we harm the healthy development of our children; by sustaining dependence on us to ensure their every need is met, we risk fossilizing children in a perpetually infantile state; by eliminating the risk of flight, we condemn our children to a slow decline in the safety of the nest.
More than just safe, we also want our children to be sound: of good judgement, secure, reliable, flawless, solid, and replete with common sense. This only comes from knowing what lies outside the nest. It is the product of an intelligently managed, escalating scale of experience and exposure to the risks and responsibilities, the forces and freedoms that will arm them against the real-world dangers that await each of us.
Dr. Malcolm Pritchard
Head of School