anastasia de waal, 5 July 2010
Penelope Leach meets Sophie Kinsella in Charlie Taylor’s latest psychedelic guide to surviving with terrible teens, Divas & Door Slammers: the secrets to having a better behaved teenager, writes Annaliese Briggs.
The Eton educated, behavioural expert and self-proclaimed bad boy, has turned his practical experience of containing mischievous pupils at The Willows, a state special primary school, into words of wisdom for parents at the end of their tether. Wield Taylor’s ‘positive touch policy’ in the home and you too could have immaculately behaved children. It’s not for the faint hearted, mind; you’ll need the constitution of a multitasking extraordinaire, an appetite for nostalgia and a proactive eye—all whilst trying to convince your 15-year-old that a quarter of an hour spent playing video games is quite enough for one day. Taylor favours an apparently arbitrary 6:1 ratio of praise to criticism and suggests thinking of potty training for inspiration: ‘when a toddler, parents instinctively pile on the praise.’ (Perhaps avoid a literal application of this wisdom: revelling in your son’s recently acquired proficiency in putting the toilet seat down is unlikely to make for happy families.)
A ‘realistic rewards system’ is also amongst recommendations. ‘The best incentive [cue unanimous groan from parents with multiple offspring] is money,’ Taylor adds. Not sticky stars? Double chocolate ice-cream? With sprinkles on top? Apparently teenagers respond to little else. And so flourishes a lucrative culture of instant and tangible indulgence. By page 10 of Divas and Door Slammers, parents all over the country will be wearily reaching for their tumblers of G&T, already exhausted at the thought of empty plaudits and endless trips to the nearest cash point. Your house may become one of harmonious bliss, but you’ll be too exhausted to care and too poor to enjoy it.
It all seems a little compos mentis for the take-each-day-as-it-comes parent. What if your child spends the afternoon hitting his little sister and you can’t think of six honeyed words of affection? Times this state of affairs by 46 and you wonder how Charlie Taylor makes it through the day at The Willows. Teachers may grind their teeth whilst applauding little Jonny for smearing only half of his lunch up the canteen walls, but children are having the times of their lives. The central premise of Taylor’s positive touch policy is that children operate a ‘bad publicity is better than no publicity’ business, and that kicking up a fuss in the playground is all aid of the affectionate embrace restraint brings. At The Willows, home to children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, Taylor’s cut out the middleman and gone straight for Ofsted certified hugs. Tyrannical pre-teens are also treated to daily massages from peers and staff—the favourite accompanying soundtrack is a chillout groove compilation and I imagine classrooms are adorned with scented candles, kept at arms length.
You wouldn’t be mistaken for thinking the teachers’ preferential treatment of pupils reeks of a mock-Freudian experiment. Freud, popularly dismissed of all consequence, is here worth a reread; he writes poignantly of the child’s transference of affection from parent to teacher and manages to contain his psychoanalysis within the context of scholarship:
‘Psychoanalysis has taught us that the individual’s emotional attitudes to other people are established at an unexpectedly early age. The people to whom the child is in this way fixed are his parents. His later acquaintances are obliged to take over a kind of emotional heritage; they encounter sympathies and antipathies to the production of which they themselves have contributed little. These men, the teachers, became our substitute fathers. That was why, even though they were still quite young, they struck us as so mature and so unattainably adult.’
If Freud had his way, I daresay we’d all be bumping off members of the maths department and sleeping with our English teachers in some quasi-Oedipal complex. I don’t suppose for a second this is what Charlie Taylor has in mind, yet frequent and prolonged hugs, chillout groove compilations and the kind of unconditional love Taylor’s 6:1 strategy conveys to the child, are someway down the path towards disaster. While children may make parents of teachers, there is no room for teachers to respond in an environment that is necessarily a temporary place for the child.