I HAVE just sent my seven-year-old daughter away for her first Brownie pack holiday. For her, this posed a real challenge – staying out for an unprecedented two nights in an unfamiliar setting with girls she barely knows. At the outset, she was less than convinced, and it took a while for her to work up the courage to put her name down.
A couple of years ago, she simply wouldn’t have. She has never been particularly confident, and the thought of challenging herself to this extent would have sent her into a panic. It was for precisely this reason that I was keen for her to go – so subtly, and without putting on any pressure, I encouraged her to think about it. I couldn’t have been more proud when, of her own volition, she told the Brownie leaders to count her in.
This willingness to take a risk, to be brave enough to step out of your comfort zone, seems in marked contrast to the findings of a Childline study. It records a nine per cent increase in the number of children reporting unhappiness and low self-esteem, taking the figure to 35,244; and a trebling of those troubled by anxiety to 8,642.
As a parent, these figures are seriously worrying. This isn’t children complaining of too much homework or too little pocket money but letting us know that there is something fundamentally wrong with their mental health. However, I suspect that like much of what comes under that particular umbrella, the problem will be conveniently brushed under the carpet.
In my daughter’s case, I first felt the need to intervene when, starting school at age four, she was painfully shy. She barely spoke when addressed by an adult and would hang her head and avert her eyes – something which, knowing how articulate she was, I found extremely frustrating. I signed her up for drama and, despite her reluctance, persisted on taking her week after week. The idea was not, in any way, to punish her, but to help her find her voice. It worked, and through that, and other activities, she became much more socially confident.
Part of the problem is that the culture in which children are growing up is innately hostile. Never have they been more tested at school than they are today, with SATs and other formal assessments being imposed on them before they have even reached double figures. With all that pressure comes the fear of failure – is it any wonder that children feel anxious, when they feel their whole life hangs on meeting the required standard?
On the other hand is the contradictory mindset that children need to be protected. Examples of this abound: not being able to take pictures of your own child’s nativity, sports days in which there can be no winners or losers, children not being allowed to play outside without an adult watching over them. In an age where we all feel under threat, whether it be from Isis or incurable illness, we are transferring our fears onto our children – and they lack the maturity and life experience to know how to handle them.
With my daughter, I didn’t wait to see if she grew out of her lack of confidence. The way I saw it, with age, her insecurities would only become more deeply ingrained – so I tackled the problem head-on. It isn’t fixed, and it will take a lot more positive encouragement for her to feel able to take on the world in the way that I would like, but at least she has made progress and this will hopefully continue.
What is important is that I keep reinforcing the message that she can do anything she sets her mind to. I sent her on pack holiday with a letter telling her how brave she was and that, having faced this challenge, the next one would be that little bit easier. I also encouraged her to let her little light shine – something we have previously discussed – and told her that, as long as she did this, she would be just fine. It is a message we should be giving all children.