Sunday, March 07, 2010

"Toughening Up"

During a conversation yesterday I was told that "children needed to go to school to toughen them up, so they learn that life isn't all rosy."

I've heard this said what seems like a million times since I've been home-educating.  It ranks pretty highly along with the lack of socialisation and mums can't teach everything concerns,  in what to expect in a conversation with somebody that doesn't understand home-ed.

As an aside, I seem to be in highly reflective mode lately.  I seem to be thinking alot about my past, my childhood, my school days and how they have affected me.  I've been soul searching deeply, looking into past mistakes and what could have been done (if anything) to change things. 

Life is one long learning curve isn't it?

So, when someone made this "toughening up" statement yesterday, in a very matter of fact of course I'm right sort of way, it got me thinking.  I have analysed it more than I have done previously.  In the past I have just shrugged it off as differing opinions, but this time it bothered me.  Not in a "oh my whole world is going to come crashing down" sort of bothered, but more in a "how did school toughen me up then?" sort of way.

So let's think about that.

If memory serves me correct, I went to nursery school at 4 years old.  I remember being blissfully happy playing on the see-saws outside in the garden, queuing respectfully for a turn on the slide,  and blowing bubbles in the washing up liquid paint.  I remember the days dwindling away with creating butterfly paintings, cross-stitching on plastic canvas, sewing funny shaped cuddly toys and preparing for my Angel role in the Nativity Play.  It was obvious I was going to be given that role - after all, I was your typical blonde haired "beauty" at that age, exceptionally well behaved due to strict parenting, with good manners, and always perfectly turned out.  My mum took the uniform rules very seriously - pinafore dresses and knee high white socks, highly polished black shoes, hair was immaculately styled in "pig tail" bunches, or plaits.  I was no trouble at all.  I was quiet and loved reading and writing.   The teachers seemed to like me, and all was well with the world.

Moving on to Primary school.   I think I enjoyed it, but I can't remember a huge amount about it.  I can remember various teachers, but can't recall much about lessons and learning.  I can remember a great deal about fellow classmates, but can't recall having many friends.  I don't feel as if I fitted in.  I was painfully shy and quiet.  I didn't know about fashions and what the current trend was.  In latter years of Primary, the girls around me were discussing celebrities and make up. I didn't know who they were talking about and had never touched make up.  My hair was all wrong, and my front teeth were the size of tombstones.  I was still happily jumping over flower pot jumps in the garden pretending I was a Show-Jumper, oblivious to the fact that others were growing up fast.

During those years I clearly recall two occasions that sound so silly now, but I know have impacted my life.  First was when two boys sitting on the same table as myself talked to me.  Now I would have been around 10 years old at this time, and I clearly remember the joy I felt that someone was talking to me.  I talked back smiling, and promptly got hit on the hand hard with a ruler by the teacher for talking in class.   I was horrified.  Embarrassed.  Confused.  I was a "good girl", never in trouble before.  It was a shock.  Those boys never spoke to me again and I never tried to talk to others.

The second incident was when I had finished my lesson work early.  2 other girls had finished theirs too (they were the "top 2" in the class).  We were asked to help the teacher to create a wall display, and this included cutting out lots of signs.  I didn't know that we were meant to cut outside of the lines, as the lines were actually part of the design.  I happily spent an hour or so cutting with the other 2 doing the same.  The next morning I went into class and was greeted by a very angry teacher.  In front of the class I was belittled and made to feel stupid.  Apparently the teacher had painstakingly drawn around each sign and was very cross that I had cut them in the wrong place.  It was me, she was sure of it as "C and E would definitely have not made such a stupid mistake".   Thanks.  Self-esteem plummeted to the depths as I could hear the class giggling at my misfortune, I remember feeling incredibly hot, blushing awfully, and wishing the ground would swallow me up forever.

I'm not saying that Primary school was a bad experience for me.  It wasn't that bad, I just remember feeling incredibly lonely and confused at times.  I do remember struggling to live up to teacher expectations.  I was following in the footsteps of my brother.  The brother that had academically excelled in everything he attempted (he was part of the debating team, the law and order team, the football team, the swimming team, the travelling drama crew... and...well, you get the idea). He went on to pass his 11 plus exam and thus entered Grammer School.  On more than one occasion I heard the "Oh, you are nothing like your brother are you??" when I failed to understand something or answer a question correctly.

No big deal you might say, and I would ordinarily agree. But for some reason experiences such as these have haunted me.  I can see that I doubt my ability to do things even to this day. Do you know that it is only in the past 5 years or so that I have become comfortable with making people cups of tea? I fretted that it would be too strong, too weak, not sweet enough, too much milk etc etc.  I panic over silly things being "right", and would often rather not try things than get them wrong and make a fool of myself.

My self-esteem plummeted to beyond recognition.

My first year of Secondary school was spent at an all-girls school.  I liked that school.  I felt quite popular.  I got along with everyone and felt part of things.  I did well in the classes, didn't find the work difficult, and felt that I could just be me.  None of the teachers had any expectations of my abilities as my brother hadn't been there before me.  Sad then, that the last day of this school is so ingrained in my memory as a bad day.  It was school sports day and I had been chosen to compete in the 1500 metres for my team.  I loved running, just like my dad.  I sprinted around the track and won with ease.  Instead of celebrations I was met by angry girls.  Why?  Because one of my fellow racers was crying as she had lost despite trying so hard.  Her humiliation and disappointment was there for all to see, and that made everyone feel sorry for her.  Even my fellow team mates thought I was the bad guy.  The last words that echo in my mind are "You could have let her win..." from a so-called friend of mine.  I felt guilty, I felt bad, I felt sorry that I had caused her such upset.  It was something I had never experienced before as the kind, loving, caring child I always tried to be.  I just wanted everyone to be happy. 

Then we moved house.  Not just to a new house, but to a new County.  At 12 we moved from Birmingham to Devon, to live by the sea.  I was sad to leave, but excited.  I dreamed of a new life with lots of new friends.  Oh dear.

I started in the 2nd year of my new school.  There were 3 new girls in the class that year.  Immediately the other two paired off and became friends.  I was laughed at.  My skirt (that mum had chosen as suitable) was too long and unfashionable as it was knee-length, my knee high socks were childish, my shoes were of the "sensible" variety, I wore a "proper shirt" and my tie was worn correctly.   My hair - well, my beautiful blonde hair was a great source of amusement.  Why?  Because I didn't have a fringe.  I was laughed at and taunted.  "Slaphead" was the norm.  I was heartbroken.  I had so many dreams of new starts and being popular, but it wasn't to be.  I didn't talk to my parents about it, although I did beg my mum to cut me a fringe.  She wouldn't.   I just muddled on through the days and got on with things as best I could.  One day (embarassing confession time), I sneaked a can of hair spray into my school bag.  I got down the road on my way to school and tried to make a fringe.  I put a side parting in my hair and tried to stick my hair into a side sort of fringe.  Obviously it looked hideous, and I was taunted all the more.  I can laugh at my foolishness now, but I was so desperate to be liked!  I went on to sneaking a shorter, more fashionable skirt into my bag and changing on the way to school.  I started to wear the usual polo shirts instead of the crisp white button up ones, hiding the fact under my jumper and praying mum didn't notice.  I rolled my knee high socks down around my ankles, and took a change of shoes.  All this deceit in an attempt to fit in.  I was torn between pleasing my mum and wanting friends.  I chose to turn against my mum and work hard on the friends bit.

I haven't yet mentioned that I wore glasses. My eyesight was very bad.  I couldn't read any of the blackboard without glasses.  But, my glasses were awful.  They were NHS prescription frames that my mum thought were lovely and she didn't have to pay for them.  They would do the job and that was that.  I would never argue with my mum.  Even when she told me to wear lime green flares and a matching waistcoat - I wouldn't argue.  I cringed and sobbed inside, but wanted to please my mum and make her happy.  So there I was with a choice to make.  Do I put my "Dame Edna" lookalike glasses on (I kid you not, I wish I was!) knowing that my peers would tear me apart for the rest of my school days, or do I just pretend that I can see perfectly well thank you, and spend hours pretending to copy text and diagrams from the board.  I did the latter.  Well, who would want to look like Roz from Monsters Inc?

You can imagine the mess this got me into it - I struggled to keep up, I couldn't revise for exams, I was a big fat failure because peer pressure was more important to me that grades.  Actually, I went on to College, and after handing in essay aften essay and getting very good scores, my tutor checked my file for school exam results and couldn't believe how low they were in comparison to the high standard that I was achieving at college.  The difference being there was very little copy board work to be done at College, simple.

I have barely touched on my "bullying" experiences in the Secondary school.  I haven't told you about the amount of times I was forced to run home as fast I could because a gang of girls were chasing me with cries of "let's get her, let's punch her in the face".  Why did they want to do this?  Because I was an ugly slaphead of course.  I didn't get into arguments, I was too quiet and shy.  My hair was blonde and my skin was fair, so I got labelled as an "ugly wierd albino".  Despite being good at sports, I was always the last to be picked for teams - along with the fat girl.  I remember turning up at the first school disco I went to, in an outfit that my mum had bought for me specially - a short flary skirt and smart short sleeved jacket.  I liked it.  Sadly nobody else did.  Everyone else had dressed in jeans and t-shirts and I was devastated.  I got called a snob and posh, I was pushed into, laughed at, and learnt it was easier to just hide away in the corner where no-one would see me.  Numerous times I got caught in the toilets by the girl gangs, and humiliated.  I would stop going to the loo, holding my toilet needs in until it was oh so uncomfortable - but I'd rather do that than risk a beating.  I started faking illness - stomach aches or headaches to enable me to leave school 10 minutes early.  Every day for weeks I did this, it was so important for me to be given that 10 minute head start before my enemies.

I could go on and on, but I won't.  I think I've confessed enough.

So, did all of this "toughen me up"?

No.  It made me feel inadequate.  It made me worry about what I look like, how I dress, how my hair is styled, and if I fit in.  It closed doors for me academically as I didn't get the results I was more than capable of achieving, and meant that making friends for me has been difficult.  Yes, it could be argued that my upbringing and relationship with my mum had something to do with it all.  I already lacked the confidence of many as I put her feelings above my own.  I didn't want to admit that I was struggling.  I didn't want to let my parents down.  The peer pressure to conform and the expectations put upon me by the "one size fits all" system, added to these inadequacies.

It is only in recent years that my confidence has grown and my "don't care what people think" attitude has been born.  It is only recently that I realise that I do have friends.  Friends that care about me and like me.  But, I still struggle.  In the back of my mind are those inadequacies.  I ask myself often why people want to spend time with me.  I think I must be boring to others.  I won't ask people to join me for days out etc, for fear of rejection.  Those that know me will recognise the fact that I struggle to even name a day and time to meet up for fear of getting it wrong.

Over-reacting? Maybe.  Over-sensitive?  Most definitely.  But, I am not alone.  I have spoken to many people over the years that have struggled with the same feelings and experiences.  So much so that it is probably deemed as almost normal.  Does this make it ok?  I don't think so.

My children don't need to be toughened up by such a "survival of the fittest" institution.  I don't need them to experience humiliation and belittling to prove that life isn't always rosy thank you.  My children learn from life.  They aren't protected from society.  They (talking about the older two in particular here) know all about drug use, alcohol abuse, divorce rates, disfunctional families, unfairness in the workplace, financial difficulties etc etc.  How?  Because they have their eyes wide open.  They live life in the same world as the rest of us.  They read newspapers and watch news reports, then ask questions.  We talk, we discuss, we find out more, I help them learn what they want to know.  They don't need to be pinned down by three girls while a fourth punches and kicks them.  What will that teach them?  At best how to report and deal with a violent attack and how not to put yourself in such a situation again, at worst how to fight back and make people fear you through violent threats and behaviour.  How many times does the bullied become the bully?  Thanks but no thanks.

So, please no more "toughening them up" tales - I don't want to hear any more.  If my children choose to go to school, it will be because they feel ready to face it.  They will make up their own mind and understand that school won't be all wonderful and rosy - but that it can offer them opportunities too.  They aren't kept inside a bubble, and actually, until they read this posting (if indeed they do), they know nothing about my school experiences as I have never mentioned them.  My children have seen my struggles financially and heard about us debating work choices and home-ed.  They have lived through their dad losing their job and the unfairness of the law.  They have also seen first hand the bullying at the bus stop by the children waiting for the school bus, they have witnessed the police at our door enquiring about it.  They have seen their mum crying for days in absolute despair when a so called friend backstabbed her and turned her world upside down.  They have experienced first hand the cruelness of their own peers when they have been taunted as they try to enjoy themselves down at the park - but they have dealt with it, talked with me about it, and I am mighty proud of them.

My children are under no illusions.  They know they have to take the good times and the bad.  They know that some people will like them, and some people won't.  They understand that life will be easy and hard at differing times, that they can be lucky and unlucky. They are fully aware that life will throw up situations that they will struggle to deal with.  But, they are prepared.  They haven't been battered and bullied in order to be prepared, they have been loved, nurtured, and had their self-esteem protected in order for them to face the world and whatever life throws at them.

These are my own personal thoughts and opinions. My own experiences, my own (admittedly hot-headed) rants and distresses. I will not apologise for voicing my opinion here on my own personal blog - but I do apologise if any distress or offence is caused to those that don't share my views. If you don't like what I'm writing - don't read it, but I'd prefer it if you do :o)


  1. Thank you for sharing your very thoughtful and thought-provoking post.
    I had a similar yet different experience. I was the geeky, unfashionable, "square" - bright, finding the work easy, and yet always feeling inadequate, striving for teacher and peer respect.
    This "toughening up" process only served to squash me flat, and like you I still have issues with inadequacy, friendships, trust etc.
    I will fight tooth and nail to give my children the opportunity to grow up in a supportive rather than destructive environment.

  2. Wow! That is how this post has left me feeling. Thank you so much Julia for writing this. You have summed up a lot of how my experience of school and childhood was. Like you I have often had the 'toughening up' conversation, mainly with my parents. The same parents that when, one day, I got off the school bus and was pushed to the ground and threatened to have my head kicked in, told me that they where cross with me because I should have stuck up for myself. My mother marched round the corner when someone had told her what was going on, I thought to have a go at the bullies. Alas no, she had simply come to shout "get up from the ground" at me and drag me off home to be scolded for being a wimp.
    Do I want my kids to have those kind of 'toughening up' lessons? No thanks.

  3. That completely resonates with me; I was bullied at school because I am fat.

    Friends tell me I am gregarious etc.... I don't recognise it all; I feel like I'm loner and that I don't make friends easily; have no idea how to do small talk and constantly worry that I am boring people.

    Slowly I am getting better with all this; partly because Rye is a sociable little lad and so I force myself to go out and make friends - well, acquaintances really, hardly ever seem to be able progress a new friendship.

  4. I was painfully shy and well meaning teachers made it worse by trying to bring me out of my shell in front of the whole class. And I was a geek! Urgh! Still am but nowadays I don't give two hoots! LOL
    Instead of toughening us up I think its eventually (only over the last couple of years for me, and still working on it!) made us into confident, free thinking, caring and independent people who aren't afraid to want better than a self esteem sapping environment for our kids.
    All the tough State system taught me was to turn around and stick 2 fingers up at it!

  5. Thank you for that. All very reminiscent of my own school days.

  6. So much of what you said resonates with me. Epecially the effects on my day to day life as an adult. Thanks for writing it.

  7. Anonymous5:25 pm

    Yep, this is my father-in-laws favourite argument. It goes right next to the 'they won't learn to deal with disappointment if you let them get their own way." argument! That one is about as ridiculous! It's not as if it is going to be possible for them to avoid that sort of disappointment, being children in our culture. It's not as if they won't get multiple opportunities to be 'toughened up' ... or more correctly put ... brutalized!
    Great post.

  8. Anonymous6:37 pm

    Thanks for sharing this Jules. I think a lot of us can identify with some of this. I wasn't a particular target but it was definately a dog eat dog world which I think it doesn't do anyone any good to be part of.
    I hate the they must be toughened up argument the most of all the pro school arguments. It starts at nursery (they need to be ready for school), then school (they need to be ready for life) etc, so which part of life are we actually supposed to enjoy? I would say that we need practise at enjoying life so that we are able to when we are older. I know many "toughened up" people who struggle with enjoying life.

  9. ((hugs)) I identify SO much with SO much of that post - thank you for sharing. I might even post in a similar vein myself - if I can get up the nerve...

  10. " They are fully aware that life will throw up situations that they will struggle to deal with. But, they are prepared. They haven't been battered and bullied in order to be prepared, they have been loved, nurtured, and had their self-esteem protected in order for them to face the world and whatever life throws at them."

    This is SO exactly one of the major reasons why my kids are home with me :D (plus the fact I hated school for not dissimilar reasons to yours!) My struggle is with my eldest, who spent two years at primary school & loved it - on the whole. He would now be Yr8. I brought him back home with me before he started secondary school, but he is a 'socialite' and would really like to be at school (despite having his own identity struggles whilst he was there), but he is a crowd pleaser and your story is precisely the reason I don't allow him to make that choice just now. He needs the protection of home until he is more ready to stand and be HIMSELF in the face of pressure. His argument is always "yeah, but Mum that was YOU and it's different NOW!" ~ Oh, if only he were right about that one, THEN I could let him go! All the same, he's got used to being at home now and CAN see the pluses - most days :D!! ME - I can see the advantages EVERY day - I have my lovely son back again :D

  11. oh hun !! i had the same not into fashion etc, but thankfully never really any bad bad experiences, i hope you see some of these people now, you are so beautiful they will feel inadequate ! ooo and another fellow brummy ;-) xx

  12. A gr8 post - I have similar conversations but more to do with the fact that my eldest lacked in self confidence - apparantly sending her to school at the tender age of 5 wud av built her confidence!!

  13. Hi Julia,
    Have just skimmed through your blog (from the beginning!) over the last couple of days and just wanted to say well done - your family look amazing.

    We took ours out of school (eldest did Reception year; youngest never went) for various reasons. They weren't on the receiving end of bullying but the atmosphere/ethos was so totally at odds with ours coupled with a number of things going on that we couldn't go along with that we took them out. They are 19 and 17 now (just 1 school year between them) and have stared OU courses; run their own band - promoting gigs etc.; play football and do karate (england standard).

    I just smiled with a recognition at so much of what you have written - the millions of ideas/plans; the lovely plans I made and ditched; the wondering if we were doing 'enough' even though it was obvious to anyone how happy, well-adjusted and generally sorted they were; the housework falling by the wayside and the occasional frenzies of cleaning up and organising haha...the total lack of money then the working and juggling home-ed when they were older...And here we are, 14 years on and we all get on; they have friends through sport, music and locally and know their own minds and aren't (so far!) willing to be led or follow the herd -the old peer pressure nugget that comes from school.

    Toughening up? Well I did take them to football from 7/8 years and they learned to mix it with people from all areas (we are really rural - isolated farmhouse in moors)- both named players' player of the season for their team from one of the supposedly roughest areas in town - so they can hold their own, if you like. What I'm trying to say very clumsily is that I think you're doing great and long may it continue :D

    Good Luck

  14. (((())))
    Didn't know it has been that difficult for you and didn't know the struggle now. :(

    Don't know what to say....

    Always welcome! :)

  15. Wow...Hi Julia...I wish I had time to leave you a really meaty comment but I have to get ready for school...take my girls and get myself into the classroom (I am training to be a teaching assistant)
    I loved school...especially secondary school. My girls love school and I have been helping in their classrooms for 7 years now in a school full of smiling faces with inspirational teachers and adults. I am on the parents commitee and was Chairperson for two years. We have Easter Egg Raffle Assembly coming up...Mothers Day daffodils being delivered. Last year we booked the Circus and had a big top on the playing field.
    I can't imagine what horrors you went through..I guess I am very lucky. Hope to come back soon.

  16. I wasn't particularly happy at Junior school but did enjoy seniors. I do wish you and I could have the experience of 2 of my 6 grandchildren. They go to a C.of.E school and its wonderful. The teachers are caring and pupils are taught to care, bullying will not be tolerated,there are very few incidents of this. I know because they have a policy of not just accepting help from parents and in my case grandparents but making them all part of a loving family who are welcomed with open arms. Im in the school twice a week with reading + any times when I can be useful. Im also a 'thursday' lady. This was started 30 yrs ago by a TA and mum. Her daughter is also one too, none of their children are now at the school. There are 2 'Nans' and 2 'mums' also as part of the group. We craft with the children, making mothers day, fathers day, christmas and easter cards. We help the pupils to make collages etc. For productions we help with costumes and scenery and work closely with teachers for this.I see much of what is going on and although the teachers keep discipline at all times its in a caring way. They encourage caring with pupils and are rewarded for this. They have a system of rewards as well as house points for good work and behaviour, they also have marbles in a jar for caring, helping etc. When the jars full they win a DVD film and some goodies to eat while watching. They have wonderful trips out. Recently my very sensitive caring gdson went to London to see Lion King and a boat trip on the river with a picnic in the park. This is normal for them. They also are going away for a week with the head and deputy. They went 3days last year. It will be 2 weeks in year6. Bullying is stamped on from a great height and is extremely rare. When its time to leave there are so many tears that we all join in with sympathy. I shall not leave when both my grandchildren leave. It seems like my extended family. My grandaughters class go camping for a weekend each year with parents grandparents and siblings. There was 100 last year. I know from my other g.children that other areas do not fare as well. I do worry that my grandson my have a rude awakening when he goes to the seniors as he is so sensitive. He is popular in school and although sensitive is not 'wimpish' he is a karate brown belt,goes to dancing lessons which he is great at and yet he never uses his karate skills on other children. The town I live in has quite old fashioned values which seem to reflect in the polite behaviour of the older kids in town. It still worries me though that after such a cosseted life at school it will be a shock. My grandaughter is made of sterner stuff so hopefully she will be fine. Both love their school and I'm jealous I never went to such a wonderful caring school.

  17. Hi Julia, thanks so much for your post on my blog. I totally recognised you and couldn't figure out where from and then realised we're flickr contacts! :)

    I couldn't agree with this post more, school totally shredded me. Emotionally AND academically. I got a bunch of great gcse's (after, of course, pretending to not do any work) and then had a breakdown when I was in sixth form college. After a couple of years of counselling I suddenly realised how much opportunity I'd missed just because of all the stupid peer pressure and lack of confidence and that's what makes me angriest, cause schools do have good things to offer, they just don't equip kids with a safe emotional environment which I think is necessary when trying new things.

    My MIL uses this argument all the time, and I really truly can't understand it, not least because by all accounts my MIL had a terrible time in senior school.

    It's really sad that so many people think it's important to hurt others in the name of 'growth'. Enough things in life will cause pain to our kids,

  18. I'm glad some people had great times at school but so many more people had times like you write about! I didn't like school and that's a big part of wanting to homeschool my daughter. I wish more people would understand that toughening up or socializing at school is the exact thing I DON'T want for my kid!!!

  19. An excellent post! It literally brought tears to my eyes to read what you've been through. My first couple of years in high school were a bit similar, I was the girl with the 'very' welsh accent, having just moved from the valleys to Newport,S.Wales, and I was short and very quiet, so I was targetted by some.
    The only thing for me to do was try to fit in the best I could, trying to be more fashionable, etc.. talking in class, because that was seen as 'cool'.
    You brought up some really good points in your post, and proves even more why home education is an excellent choice for our children.

  20. I also wanted to say, thankyou for adding me to your blog list, I was quite suprised to see my blog there :)

  21. I've still got a few school scars.

    Thankyou for being so open on your blog, I can see some of my own childhood/schooling in this article.

    It strikes me that school sucks quite bad. Glad my lot dont have to go through it. :)

  22. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Clearly, you are not alone in them. It has taken me a long time to figure out things in my life and to be completely confident. As a matter of fact, it was the goal I set for myself to have completed before my 30th birthday, and with help from a great counselor it has come about. So I still have dips of low self esteem and such? Yes, but they are more rare now.

    I pray to GOD, my children will have this life thing figured out and confidence well before I did. Of course, I am giving them the best fighting chance for that by keeping them home to learn in the real world, and so far they are highly successful at it. =D

    Thanks again, Peace!

  23. Ooh, and I see you are a fellow Libertarian. Woot, woot!!!

  24. Sorry you had such a hard time of it petal! I didn't have a horrid time at school but it still had it's painful moments. I think life has painful truths and hurtful people enough without adding school to the mix. At least with home Ed you can reflect on stuff in your own time, in a more supported and peaceful way. Shitty people, shitty situations still face our kids just the same as for schooled people, the difference is, our kids can deal with them without having to drown in the pain of it all, without having no escape from the full brunt of it, whilst the adults carry on oblivious - as can happen with school bullying and horrid stuff like that, whe a child has to make sense of it in a really intense and inescapably hurtful way....