Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Today I found my first white hair, lying atop my dark brown tresses. At first I thought it was a piece of cotton thread but close examination showed it was a human hair and, since what remains of the MM's hair is short and grey, it was undoubtedly mine. I retreated, shaken, from the bathroom and began to contemplate life and aging. I decided I had two choices: to dash off to the hairdresser for my first hair dye or to celebrate this symbolic entrance into the realm of maturity and wisdom.

Retiring undefeated (I hope) from the latest round with my son on the issue of performance tests for teachers, I began to wonder if I have contributed anything memorable or even recognisably mine, during my career. Just as bleakness was edging towards despair, I logged on to Thought experiments and came across a post from Philip Walling, quoting from a 1940s book on child behaviour:

In the 1940s Dr. D. W. Winnicott who was at the time, the chairman of the British Institute of Psycho-Analysis, wrote a paper on 'The Problem of Homeless Children'. His view was that the child requires to have its original feeling of infinity closely delimited and its life confined within a circle. 'If the laws established by a child's parents prove unreliable, if the child can break them with impunity, the feeling of infinity becomes an abyss of nothingness and sets up acute distress and indeed despair in the child.' he looks elsewhere for his circle of authority and tests the law personified by his teachers and later by the police. The young delinquent values and loves the policeman.'

There it was, the underlying motif of my career: the importance of boundaries. I will probably be remembered, if at all, as a boundary bore. In working with children, with parents and with teachers, I have always emphasised the need for setting boundaries and having routines. I felt a real frisson of recognition when I read: 'the child requires to have its original feeling of infinity closely delimited and its life confined within a circle'

A few years ago, I was invited to attend an award ceremony at the British Museum. The occasion was to celebrate the achievements of young Deaf adults who had won Jack Ashley Millennium Awards. I was there as the guest of one of my former pupils but I recognised another face among the 100 youngsters receiving their awards: Oliver, a young man in his late 20s, whom I hadn't seen since he was about 5 years old. I had worked with him and his mother when he was an outstandingly beautiful but naughty toddler and I'd lost touch when we moved to Devon. His mother rang me a few days after the awards to tell me how well Oliver had done at school and university and, with the help of his award money, in setting up a web design company. 'Of course, he wouldn't have achieved any of it if you hadn't made me set boundaries,' she said. 'I'll never forget what you said' ... here my heart faltered, what on earth had I said that someone remembered 25 years later? .... 'I used to let him get away with murder because he was deaf and he was so beautiful and charming and made everyone laugh. Then you said he'll have a hard enough time being deaf without being a deaf brat, set some boundaries.'

I can't remember having that particular conversation but I'm glad I did and that it worked for Oliver. I now realise that 'setting boundaries' is my philosophy of life. I used to amaze my children with tales of the rules we had at home and school, they thought some of them were hilarious, such as getting a detention if seen walking down the school drive without wearing gloves. They found it really hard to believe some of the restrictions at the convent college I attended in the 1960s. It was an all-female college and men were not allowed into the accommodation blocks except at the beginning and end of term, when fathers and brothers were allowed in to carry luggage; even though the students were aged 18 to 21, we had to be in by 10pm, with two 11pm passes per term. If we wanted to stay out until midnight or to go away for a weekend, we had to have written permission from our parents. The college was in Southampton, where the night clubs and dock area are separated from the High Street shops and coffee bars by the mediaeval Bargate; the college rule was that students could not go Below Bar after 7pm. I can't remember what the penalties were for breaking any of the rules; we were such a law-abiding lot that there probably hadn't been a need for the nuns to think of any.

Apart from the disbelief and amusement these stories provide, I have always seen them as a means of illustrating the problems in today's society. Our rules were silly and trivial so breaking them was a silly or trivial offence. Breaking rules, pushing at boundaries is an essential part of growing up and we had safe boundaries to cross: hitching up your uniform skirt to knee level instead of the regulation two inches below doesn't sound much, but it gave a thrill of rebelliousness. Returning to my old college a few years ago, I found that not only the nuns but also all the rules had gone. The accommodation is now 'unisex' and many of the students cohabit. No-one worries about locking-up times and lights-out but there are occasional drug-busting raids.

When I read of pupils being bullied by text messages and on websites, when I hear of knife attacks and muggings, of verbal and physical attacks on teachers, I don't think today's youngsters are any worse than we were, I think that they are pushing and finding no boundaries to limit them.

I'm just off to book that hairdresser's appointment, I must set some boundaries for my greying hair!


  1. Never make a rule that you're not willing to enforce.

  2. Okay, I'll just grow old grey-sfully!

  3. What a wonderful story about Oliver. Now that you are retired, you have oodles of time to work your magic on Brit.

    It's funny, but one of the left's favourite shibboleths about raising kids is that it isn't enough to just give them orders. You have to lead by example. This is usually applied to popular causes like anti-smoking, domestic violence, etc. All well and good, but it is interesting how a zeitgeist that scorns duty, objective morality, etc. is starting to panic about kids who are simply aping what they see and hear from dear old Mom and Dad. We hand out condoms to sixteen year olds and then panic about pedophiles. We never censure anyone who walks away from from jobs or relationships because they aren't "fulfilled enough", but we want our kids to tough out the road to achievement. And so few seem to see the contradictions.

    Here is a good piece via Brothersjudd.

  4. This fits in nicely with my recent diatribe on spirituality and it's impulse toward unbounded exuberance.

    I've always been a law and order, boundaries kind of guy, even as a kid. In Ferris Bueller's Day Off I rooted for the school principal. I rooted for the Chicago policemen clubbing the antiwar protesters at the 1968 Democrat convention.

  5. Peter: I place the blame for Brit entirely on his teachers!

    Thanks for the linked article, it was interesting to follow the consequences of liberal thinking through to adult behaviour. I'm torn between worry about what lies in store for the next few generations and an instinctive feeling that there will be a complete Victorian-style age of repression.

    Duck: I've read your post on spirituality several times but haven't got to grips with it, i think it's because my understanding of 'religion' and 'spirituality' appear to be the opposite of that used in the post. I'll try again.

    Since I spent a lot of time on protest marches in the 60s and 70s, I won't comment on your final remark!

  6. Oh, so its boundaries for thee but not for me, eh?

    Isn't the internet grand? Where else can a devout Catholic peacenik from Devon swap views with an ex-Catholic athiest hawk from Minnesota? Al Gore did one thing right, at least.

  7. Maybe there's hope for one or other of us yet, Duck.


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