I woke up this morning with an old story in my head about my daughter.
It’s a story that’s never left me, because at the time it made me feel like a bad mother.
In that drifting place between sleep and waking, it occurred to me that this story is part of a much bigger tale.
Ready for school
In the UK it’s traditional for children to start school in the September after they turn four.
Legally, they do not have to start school until the September after they turn five, but almost all parents send them when they’re four, so this is widely accepted as the age that children start school.
My daughter’s birthday is in August, so she started school weeks after her fourth birthday.
She clung to my hand on our induction visits to the school and refused to talk to anyone, but I didn’t even think that perhaps she wasn’t ready.
What had ready got to do with it? She was four, and children start school when they’re four, that’s just the way it is.
Look to the experts
During the early years of parenting, I took on a lot of information about how to parent.
If anything presented itself as a problem, I would read books and scour the internet for the solution.
My daughter has always taken her time with everything: crawling, walking, talking. Toilet training was no different.
When it came time for her to start school she still wasn’t ‘properly’ toilet trained.
Not that she had accidents, it was quite the opposite actually. She would refuse to go to the toilet until she had her night-time nappy on. She could hold it all day.
This was already causing me major stress as a parent. All the books said girls were easier and she should be trained by now, so naturally I took it as a reflection of my parenting capabilities that she wasn’t (interestingly, and we could talk about this at length another time, but I’m sure my husband didn’t think of himself as a bad father because of this).
The memory that came to me this morning was a meeting with one of her soon to be teachers. She asked about toilet training, and I told her the situation.
‘You need to work on sorting that out before she starts school,’ was her response.
She started school in three weeks and I’d been trying to ‘sort it out’ for the best part of a year.
I hit the books again.
The system vs the individual
This teacher wasn’t uncaring. She was simply working for the needs of the school system, not my daughter, and the system said that each child needed to be fully toilet trained before starting school. That’s just the way it was.
As it turned out, the situation resolved itself.
A few weeks after turning four, something clicked, and my daughter’s fear of going to the toilet began to dissipate.
Most likely, she was finally developmentally ready.
She’s ten now and she still doesn’t go to the toilet often, she can hold it for hours, but rather than getting stressed about it or telling her when she needs to go, I try to trust that she knows.
I wish I’d trusted her when she was young. I wish I’d trusted myself. We could have saved ourselves a lot of anxiety and heartache.
Instead, I allowed the pressure of her starting school (needs of the system) and the socially accepted age for toilet training (societal pressure) to push her to learn something she wasn’t ready for, even though all the books and the blogs and the teachers said she should be.
When I write it out now it seems bonkers! Why did I do that?
Connecting the dots
I, like many others, have a tendency to trust authority figures, sometimes at the expense of trusting myself.
If the books and the teachers and the old lady down the street said my daughter should be toilet trained by age three, then I must be doing something wrong. If everyone else’s child is ready to start school at age four, then mine should be too.
It all makes sense.
Experts and those in authority are more experienced than us. They know more than we do, so of course we should trust them.
Often they do. Often they can offer advice, knowledge and wisdom that helps us on our way.
But sometimes we need to trust ourselves, and what our own experience is telling us.
Sometimes we need to find our own way.
In the scenario with my daughter, finding my own way would have meant acknowledging that she was developmentally ‘late’ reaching lots of milestones, and trust that she would come to it when she was ready. It wouldn’t have been detrimental to her in the slightest if she had started school a few months, or even a year later.
Yet at the time that was unthinkable. Why?
We’re taught here in the UK that if our children don’t start school when they’re four they’ll be behind, or they’ll miss out on fitting in, miss making friends, miss vital learning opportunities.
None of this is true.
In Finland, which is recognised as having one of the best educational systems in the world, children don’t start formal schooling until they’re seven. No one tells them they’re missing out.
Even how we learn varies. In France they teach reading and writing mainly through dictation, in UK classrooms it’s barely a feature.
We live our lives according to the systems and rules of where we’re raised. Everybody does. Again, it makes total sense.
But who is right?
How often do we stop to consider that there may be multiple ‘right’ ways?
How often do we have the courage to stray from the path that all those around us seem to be following?
Who makes the rules? And what happens when the rules start to change?
Bring on the arbitrary rules
Schools are full of arbitrary rules. I think that’s why the idea of them sends shivers down so many adult spines. But they are rules that are necessary for the school system to function.
We think we’re escaping the rules and regulations when we leave the education system, but often we’re just swapping one set of rules for another when we enter the workplace.
Even our social interactions are governed by any number of unspoken rules that we dare not break lest we risk being ostracised from our social circle. (I spent years binge drinking when it made me feel terrible because I feared not being able to enjoy social activities with my friends, all of which seemed to focus around alcohol).
Again, this all seems to make some sense.
We all just want to fit in and do the right thing (the right thing being what we perceive everyone else to be doing).
The sticking point for me is when the social norms and values change rapidly, as has happened over the past eighteen months.
All of a sudden, we have been left with a new set of societal norms and a handbook of arbitrary rules longer than War and Peace, many of which make almost no sense (feel free to attend a wedding but refrain from dancing or eating standing up whilst there?!).
The rules are running rampant, and with them we seem to be divesting ourselves of any personal responsibility for using our own common sense.
Our trust in ourselves and our own judgement is evaporating.
When authority overrides personal conscience
In 1965 Yale Psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment.
In this experiment participants were told they were taking part in a memory test.
They were instructed by a person in a white coat (signal of authority) to ‘shock’ a ‘learner’ (who was actually one of Milgram’s associates) at ever increasing levels each time they answered a question wrong, to a point it would have been fatal had the shock been real.
Despite being physically and mentally uncomfortable in doing so, 65% of participants delivered what they believed to be a potentially fatal level of electric shock because they were told to do so by a person in a white coat.
Psychologist Stanley Milgram used the experiment to explain how genocide can occur when people follow the orders of authority figures.
It was posited that this is a by product of how we are raised: we are raised by our parents, by our teachers and by our systems to be obedient. We are raised to follow the rules.
But where do we draw the line?
If we release our personal sense of ethics and responsibility in the face of ‘being good’ for authority figures, then we lose our own moral compass.
We lose trust in ourselves.
The rule of fear
During the pandemic we’ve seen rules created at an alarming rate, spreading into spheres of life where they previously didn’t exist.
It could be debated that these rules were necessary to control the spread of the virus, but what about trusting in people’s moral conscience and common sense?
In the fear hyped state of the mainstream media: our email news feeds, radio, the papers, the news channels, the posters and warnings in public spaces, and the doom laden prophecies from scientists and the government, we seem to have forgotten one basic truth: the majority of people are fundamentally good.
Before you jump in with a hundred examples of why you know this isn’t true, I want to remind you of the negativity bias.
Our brains are predisposed to look for and remember the negatives.
Whatever horror stories are lodged in your brain, there are likely many more stories of unicorns and rainbows that have happened, but we don’t get as emotionally attached to these stories, so we forget them, or even worse we don’t notice them at all!
A unicorn could skip by us in the street, and we could be so focused on clutching our purse tight and looking out for the person who’s about to mug us that we don’t even see it.
We remember the cautionary tales, the stories that scare us. Our brains love a good ‘what if’ disaster scenario.
If the news were focused on more balanced reporting, we would hear stories of the millions of survivors of the current pandemic (including my mates 91 year old Nan), if we were all busy telling each other stories of all the people we know who have recovered from the virus or have barely felt ill with it, if the news were showing images of community spirit and all the people helping each other, instead of protests and violence, then people might be feeling a bit easier about the easing of the current restrictions here in the UK.
Us Brits tend to have a ‘don’t rock the boat’ mentality.
We’re proud of our stiff upper lip and can soldier on with almost anything, as we’ve proved very well over the past eighteen months.
But it’s a slippery slope, one that if followed to its full conclusion could end up looking very much like any dystopian fiction novel you care to pick up.
Thankfully, I think most people here have had enough arbitrary rules to last a lifetime.
With the easing of restrictions, it is my hope that we will find the courage to trust in ourselves and in each other again.