Why the decline in behaviour?

2014-03-24 00:00

BOBBY Nefdt has the look of a man who’s seen it all. Headmaster of Scottsville Primary School for 15 years and a staff member since 1977, he’s witnessed a sea change in behaviour of children and parents, not always for the better.

He shows me a letter he wrote to parents in 2000 where he remarks on the lack of discipline found in many children, and the lack of support from parents. “I believe the changing family and social norms contribute greatly to the problems we are experiencing at school,” he wrote.

Not much has changed, he said in an interview this week. “What we see in school is a reflection of what’s happening in society.” He tells how some teachers in his school have stopped the practice of giving out sweets as reward for good work because children don’t say thank you.

He believes one of the main reasons for this decline in behaviour is that many parents are busy and are abdicating their parental responsibilities. “Single parenting is now in the majority. It’s tough for women to raise children on their own. And people are pursuing careers at the expense of their children.”

He’s not alone in his views. But Cordwalles headmaster Simon Weaver, who wrote in The Witness recently about the need to focus on manners, believes it’s not only children who need to be taught how to behave; many adults need lessons too.

“There has been a decay of values in terms of manners etc.,” he said, adding that he wasn’t just hankering for the past. “I think in the past we did manners by rule. I think you should be aware of other people. Manners are an outward manifestation of respect and there needs to be greater respect shown towards everyone; it goes all ways.”

While experts agree that these concerns apply to a minority of parents and children, they believe technology and changing parenting styles are having far-reaching effects. In his article, Weaver points to a growing narcissism and self absorption in “Millenials” — children born after 1980 — stoked by round-the-clock use of technology like cellphones and computers, and a Maritzburg pre-primary teacher described another consequence of the growing obsession with screens.

“TV, computers, iPads, whatever, tend to be the babysitter for many children,” said the private school teacher who did not wish to be named. “As a consequence, they are not able to listen to instructions and follow through. I don’t think there’s a lot of talking at home and so they are not trained in the ability to listen and concentrate. Meaningful communication with adults isn’t happening.

“Normal rules like waiting for someone to stop talking before having your turn are not there, and children are very in your face. There’s no respect for someone who’s older talking to you, and you listening. It’s not there at all.”

Hilton social worker Jane Markham, who works with primary school children, said she’s seen a definite change in children’s behaviour in the last decade. “Discipline was tighter then. Now you have to talk to children and understand what’s going on. This is a good thing but it can be taken to extremes. I’ve seen numerous occasions when the kids need much more firmness, not prolonged bargaining.”

She said two types of parenting styles are common and both are having a negative effect on children’s behaviour. “I describe them as hypo and hyper parenting, or parenting by proxy and gourmet parenting.” The first type are absent a lot of the time and expect teachers to do everything, while the second want to do the best for their children, to the point of interfering and being overprotective.

Anthony Pierce, spokesperson for the National Professional Teachers Association of South Africa (Naptosa), agreed. “No longer is school an island. We now have parts of school managed by school governing bodies.” While demanding parents were common in private schools, he said they’d also become an issue in former Model C schools.

“Teachers say parents want to dictate to them. The reason is because they’re investing large amounts of money in their children’s education and they expect high-performance teachers.” He said sometimes, when teachers tried to discipline children, parents tried to say the teachers were the problem. This was confirmed by Nefdt, who said such children sometimes became “untouchable”.

It was necessary, he said, for schools and parents to create boundaries. “There have to be some controls, like expecting children to stand up when adults are talking to them,” he said. “Respect and manners don’t come naturally. But if parents’ support is not there, you can’t win.”

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