Young People Up Close

Working with adolescents

Saying One Thing and Meaning Your Mother

'School' is never just a collection of buildings and people

School’s boring! School doesn’t understand! School’s only interested in exams! School’s unfair to boys! School doesn’t care…! The vehemence with which young people talk about ‘school’ suggests that whatever it is that they mean by ‘school’ is much more powerful and personal than a collection of disparate buildings or an array of teachers trying their best and sometimes getting it wrong.

Peter says of his teachers, “They don’t care about us! They only care about themselves!”

“This school picks on people for no reason!” says Anna. “You can’t do anything! And there are some people never get the blame for anything! It’s always us!”

‘School’ is the recipient of all sorts of projections but because school is ‘in loco parentis’ —responsible for guiding and looking after young people—it picks up more than its share of parental transferences. Whenever young people like Peter and Anna are exercised on the subject of ‘school’, there’s a sense in which they’re unconsciously always talking about qualities of parenting, typically ‘fairness’ or ‘caring’ or sincerity. The same goes for the conversations and debates that the rest of us have about other organisations with any sort of nurturing role in our lives. Whatever their shortcomings, hospitals, the police, social workers, politicians and even banks stand accused of the worst crime: being bad parents. We may have elaborate reasons why we believe that this organisation or those workers aren’t doing their jobs properly (and, of course, there’s often objective truth in our accusations) but it’s hard for our views not also to be informed—unconsciously—by our personal experiences of parenting.

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Given this, there are some professionals who—like anxious, insecure parents—retaliate angrily, hurt but these seemingly personal and unfair attacks. But the best professionals, like the best parents, seem able to bear the projections, knowing that they’re not as personal as they feel. Good teachers know that they’ll never get it right in the eyes of young people; they’ll always be accused of some new inadequacy. And it won’t just be the young people in their classes making the accusations. The criticisms will be just as fervent from the parents of those young people. After all, when we’re worrying about our own parenting skills, what could be easier than to lash out at other parent-figures? Make them take the blame! Make them feel the pain!

Typically, Peter and Anna will claim that their own parents are wonderful; it’s just ‘school’ that’s the problem. And typically their parents—launching some new attack on ‘school’—will also claim that everything’s fine at home; it’s just ‘school’ that’s the problem.

Helping young people to contain this good-bad splitting, helping them to live with the imperfections of their own parents and with the imperfections of the many parent-figures they encounter in their lives is difficult work. But until young people can do this, it’s hard for them ever to accept the imperfections in themselves.

Nick Luxmoore is a counselor at King Alfred's College, in the UK.

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