With increasing regularity commentators tell us that we have an epidemic on our hands: an entire generation of young people who cannot cope with setbacks, failure or disappointment; who are entitled and over-sensitive; who embrace victimhood due to the bombardment they have suffered from social media and a lack of any ‘real’ hurdles to overcome.
And yet for those of us who work every day with these so-called ‘snowflakes’ it is increasingly clear that young people are activist and socially minded in a way that certainly my generation growing up in the 80s were not. In fact, the positive face of social media is that it has politicised a generation who can rally together quickly and with a sense of combined purpose. Just look at the Women’s March last year which was packed with youngsters (we bumped into some of our girls there, in fact), not to mention the most recent ‘March for Our Lives’ protest, as well as movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp. And with the Vote 100 celebrations in full swing, it certainly feels within our school that young women are alive to their political struggles as well as their privileges in a new and exciting way.
Not that there is nothing lying behind the snowflake theory. But I would argue strongly that, if young people are struggling to handle failure, perhaps we need to look to ourselves in our anxious, micro-managing approach to modern parenting and teaching, and ask whether we are in fact allowing young people to experience the knocks of everyday living which allow them to build genuine resilience and grit for themselves. The Girls Day School Trust believes it is the duty of all schools (and, perhaps, particularly girls’ schools) to play a major part in providing an environment where learning to take risks, suffer failure and thus live well can happen alongside learning to learn. So what can schools do?
Let them Fail – and Fail Better
The great temptation for parents and teachers alike is to remove pain, difficulty, embarrassment and failure from the paths of their children and students. None of us wants to see a child suffer, and so we wade in where we shouldn’t, or perhaps rely on too much scaffolding in a lesson. We all know that parents ringing the school when their child has been given a detention, or Whatsapping the parent of a school friend who is being mean, reinforce the belief that failure – large or small – is something to be avoided. So, talk openly about failure as a school community, role model it yourself (it’s no good being taught by anxious perfectionists whilst being preached at about the importance of failure!). Young people need to experience doing poorly on tests, falling out with friends, being dumped or indeed romantically overlooked, so they can develop the tools which allow them to deal with disappointment, suffer for a time, and then get up again, ready to go. Perspective is so important and it stands to reason you can’t develop it if the messages given suggest that small failures are too painful to be experienced. And – crucially – acknowledge that when things really do feel bad, and you can’t pick yourself up, you need and deserve the support of those around you. You can’t ‘fix’ a problem for a teenager, but you absolutely can help them think through how to fix it themselves.
Raise Your Voice
Children should be heard more and seen less. They are growing up in a climate in which the way that they look is deemed much more important than what they say and believe; and we should be helping them to reverse that culture. Raising your voice – whether it’s in the flesh or online, politically or culturally – to talk about what is important is indeed a tool for life. It also brings other tools into play – courage, confidence, the ability to articulate through emotion – and helps to develop a sense of owning your space in the world. Schools should really listen to their students and provide opportunities for young people to say what they think, in lots of different ways. Our girls run online political campaigns, collect sanitary products for local women’s refuges and Ghanaian schools, run a feminist conference with speakers they invite themselves, organise their own annual Happiness Festival and Clever Clogs Conference (reclaiming the ‘cool to be clever’ ground), star in the annual open mic Comedy Night, write and perform their own poetry, go on annual fundraising Because I’m a Girl walks, present at science festivals – in short, they have been allowed to create their own ways of being heard, and have flourished doing so.
Look Out, Look Up
Finally, young people need to look outwards, as adolescence can be a particularly introspective phase of growing, not least in this world of social media. Constant self-examination in teenagers will tend towards constant self-criticism, and can lead to low mood and self-esteem; plus, it has been clearly established that in helping others we experience genuine joy and human connection. Looking out into our communities, being useful to others, living alongside others, understanding that human beings are connected in a network (beyond online social networks), will help enormously when times get tough. Schools must provide community opportunities but – again – let the pupils choose for themselves what it is they do. Make them make it a truly meaningful experience by committing thought, time and energy to what their contribution will be.
About the author
Fionnuala Kennedy is Deputy Head Pastoral at Wimbledon High School, part of the Girls’ Day School Trust. Fionnuala read English Literature at Exeter College, Oxford. After a brief foray in publishing at Macmillan and the British Library, Fionnuala embarked on her teaching career at The Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, where she taught English and later became Head of Middle School. Continuing in the boarding school world, she went on to become Head of Sixth Form at Woldingham School in Surrey before taking on the exciting challenge of a Deputy Headship at Wimbledon High School. Fionnuala is committed to a genuinely excellent and fit-for-purpose pastoral provision and in particular helping young women to find and use their voices.