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Why am I so passionate about listening to and empowering children?

I believe I’ve always had a good work ethic.  I was brought up in a home where both of my parents worked, as well as supporting many charitable and voluntary organisations, so life was certainly busy in our home.   My siblings and I all had part time jobs from a fairly young age and I’m proud of that as it certainly instilled in each one of us a commitment to hard work.  So when I found myself quite unexpectedly owning a childcare business whilst being a mum to a pre schooler and 12 week old baby my life was rather chaotic, but sure I was used to that!  However loosing my mum at a fairly young age the following year and my father in law in quick succession meant my husband and I were seriously just coasting along – barely getting by if I’m being totally honest.  Overwhelmed with grief, a busy business, full time job and a young family – something had to give.  So my husband took a career break and over the next decade we threw our hearts and souls into our young family and our business, growing its capacity from 35 to 750 families. Our own children, two boys, were the centre of our world – they still are!   We wanted the very best for them, like all parents. 

So imagine my shock when in 2012 my eldest son, as fairly young teen, came to tell me he was unhappy at school. He had been in the same school for over ten years having started in primary one and then moving on to the grammar department of the very same school. I immediately wondered was he being bullied – but NO he wasn’t. On the outside – to us his family, and his friends – he had it all!  He was sporty, popular at school and fairly academic – what could possibly be wrong for such a kid who had, in my opinion, an amazing childhood. I put it all down to a phase and at the end of 3rd year thought things would blow over during summer break and be back to normal before he went into 4th form. At that stage my youngest was in P6 and I didn’t necessarily want him going on to the grammar department of his school – he was a different kid altogether- he needed encouragement, didn’t love sport and would have struggled in such a large academic campus environment.  So as a family we went to view a smaller more mixed ability school which we all fell in love with – especially my older son. I dismissed his pleas to move too and I admit got rather frustrated with him. I didn’t tell even my closest friends about any of this as I ‘knew’ it was just a phase until one day I called my older sister and opened up to her. I called her for advice – basically how to deal with a teen! She is a school principal and her kids were a few years ahead of my own so she was always one stage ahead of me as a parent.  She has awesome kids and my own two looked up to their cousins as well as to their Aunt. I felt for sure my son would listen to her and get over this unsettled phase. She came up to Belfast and I’ll never forget that day as long as I live – we went to Avoca for lunch and my son opened his heart. My sister and I cried when he opened up to us and my sisters advice was I had to ‘listen’ to my son. It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected, or necessarily wanted, to hear. The following week I asked to see the principal of his school and was directed to one of the  VP’s in charge of pastoral care. She wasn’t terribly empathetic to his situation but said she would endeavour to get to the bottom of things but the very next day my son was pulled to one side by his sports teacher and told he would be off the rugby team if he didn’t buck up his ideas!  That totally pushed him over the edge – it was the comment that broke him and he never stepped a foot back in the school again.  The one area which he enjoyed at school was now going to be taken from him – so he thought.  I tried again to get a meeting with the principal so he could hear my sons story – no avail as he didn’t deal in pastoral matters unless it involved bullying.  I caved in and called the ‘other school’ and they said they couldn’t fit him in as he was already one month into his GCSEs. The principal of that school told us to come over that afternoon anyway and he would take time to chat with him to see if hearing it from him would settle him – so his own principal of 10 years didn’t take time to speak with him but here was someone reaching out a listening ear. We went as a family to that meeting as I was fully expecting my son to be told he couldn’t join and we wanted to be there to support his disappointment but also help him face the reality he had to stay put ! My mantra was when ‘the going gets tough, the tough get going’ – ‘you’ve started so you’ll finish’ – ‘you can’t bow out at the first hurdle’ … all of those cliches – I saw this potential move as a failure of my parenting and my son failing to ride out the waves!    We went into the meeting and didn’t say a word with the exception of introductions. The principal spoke to my son very candidly and my son opened up – the principal LISTENED to him and to my despair at the time offered him a place to start on Monday, despite our earlier conversation.   This gentleman was not only a born leader but someone who I learned very quickly over the years that followed, knew how to bring out the very best in his pupils. I’ve so much admiration and respect for this man – he will never know my gratitude. Many may not understand however the devastation I felt at that time in my life – for the first time as a parent I couldn’t fix something for my child. I desperately pleaded with my son to stay at his old school put but despite all of my tears he couldn’t – he just couldn’t! I too still couldn’t lift the phone to tell a soul. His school friends parents were some of my closest friends – I just didn’t know what to say as I couldn’t understand the situation myself. As his parent I knew best right? He started his new school on the Monday and by the Friday I could see for myself he was already changed. Inside I was genuinely having a breakdown over it all but I made a conscious decision that I wouldn’t force my son in ANY way. I had to put my family first over friends. I took a back seat role in his new school.  Of course I went along to support him at sporting events and the many prize days that followed but I didn’t get so personally involved in the social side of school again.  I didn’t force him academically and I began to practice what I preached in WORK in my own HOME.  My son began to excel in school. He went on charity trips empowering young children in India, he still played on the 1st XV teams but was able to play football too which he loved. Life no longer centred around high expectations in school, sport or at home.  He became a school mentor and was a school prefect. He found himself – not the version of himself he felt forced into!   He had a very tough four years in some respects after moving school, as did I, but he felt it was all worth it.  People who had been his friends for a decade, turned their back on him. Some of it was beyond nasty to the point the pastoral care teachers phoned me concerned about posts they saw on social media directed at my son. Luckily my son had much thicker skin than me – I just couldn’t believe school children, and even worse their parents, could write or say things like that about a school boy – a lot of it was deplorable. It took me two years to begin to get over this period and if I’m truthfully honest it was only when he left to go into university that I was able to close that chapter. I couldn’t be prouder of both of my boys and their journeys. I NOW listen to them and encourage them but I never steer them down a path. My eldest is in his final year of studying law and has had amazing opportunities through university –  from being publisher of his law society magazine to securing a cover interview with Mary McAleese that any professional magazine would have been proud off.  In fact QUB are using this version of the law society magazine as a recruiting tool worldwide.   He’s passionate about children’s law, human rights and the equality agenda. He has just returned from a six month placement in University of British Columbia, Vancouver where he studied Asian legal systems and advanced corporate law with postgraduate students. He hopes to go La Sorbonne in Paris next year to do a Masters in corporate law. My youngest is in lower 6th and he too had a horrible last year in Primary school as he constantly got grief in the shared campus playground over his big brother ‘jumping ship’ to another school – all to be honest down to sports rivalry. This saddens me as he was very happy at that school and didn’t deserve to be made the target of his brother moving. He too though has excelled in his ‘new’ school. However he doesn’t follow his big brothers footsteps in many ways to be honest. Two different boys BOTH with amazing futures ahead of them.  Their ‘new’ school was able to deal with differentiation and make both boys reach their very best potential in their chosen routes. So yes … I have every reason to be passionate about empowering children. Anyone who works with children has a HUGE responsibility to be a champion for them. I would never sleep in my bed at night if I thought any member of MY staff treated children in Sleepy Hollow the way my son was treated.  We do a lot of training around the rights of the child and we want our children in Sleepy Hollow Group to have a voice from as early as they can talk. As adults we need to learn to work more closely with children to help them articulate their lives, to develop strategies for change and exercise their rights. Of course we all need to follow rules but you see my son wasn’t breaking any rules – he was being pushed down a route that was too overwhelming for him. Thank goodness at 14 he was mature enough to know that – many others would have buckled and struggled with anxiety. He was much much stronger than me. So yes, listen to your children – even when their message is hard to hear. Empower them to know the responsibility of their decisions and you will be wowed at the strong resilient adults they become. I know that my son is stronger for having faced this as an adolescent- he is destined for big big things – I’m convinced of that – but there’s no pressure from me as HE HAS all the skills and resilience to get there all by himself.  He wont crumble in the professional environment you see as he has a voice and he knows his own mind!  Ive made sure that I have spent the last 7 years empowering both of my boys and listening intently to what they have to tell me.  Anyone who works with children – or struggles with a teen – JUST LISTEN!  Give them the skills to make decisions and know the consequences of their decisions.

PS ……if I had to go through the experience again :-

  1.  I’d most definitely camp outside the door of the principals office until such time as the he took a meeting with my son.  However I guess the academic downturn of his schools results speak for its leadership in itself so he doesn’t need me to tell him of its failures.  Shame as I genuinely still hold that school dear to my heart and my sons both had fantastic primary school education there. It’s certainly not the outcome I would have desired for us as a family.  After all we chose this school for our children at aged 3 hoping they would be able to stay there until aged 18.  
  2.  I’d open up to my ‘friends’ and tell them what happened as many of them may read this and not have a clue that I suffered somewhat of a breakdown at that time!  In fact they know very little of the whole story surrounding the move.


#respect #article12UNCRC

#listen #bestpracticeallofthetimeeverytime







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