I wonder if you would agree with me that bringing up children is not easy? I suspect there will be many of you concluding that this is a tautology, that somehow difficulty is inherent in the nature of the task of bringing up children. This does not of course mean it is not a labour of love but getting it right is tricky and fraught with complex decisions about what the right thing to do is. It is made all the more difficult because none of us have yet found the instruction manual.

Mr Bowyer touched on a key aspect of this in the Senior School Assembly on Monday. He set out a range of scenarios and encouraged students to consider how they would act. In speaking with parents last evening at the Year 8 parent and teacher meetings (when I wasn’t being teased about national rugby performances) much of the conversation turned on how we support children to make the right choices, on what we do to provide a context or to shape a paradigm that allows them to navigate life.

I am sufficiently old enough to support the view that some things are inherently or intrinsically wrong. Hurting others, being untruthful, acting without regard for the person at the end of one’s actions are wrong. There is and has always been a school of thought that supports a view that all moral claims are subjective and that there are no moral absolutes. I believe however that this view removes the necessary support railings that allow us to be fully human, by suggesting that the absence of any barrier allows one to realise oneself. It is akin to thinking that going barefoot allows one the opportunity to roam where one pleases. This is hardly the case, as the discalced soon discover on rougher ground. You might well argue that having a set of principles is not important, that when the choices come one can decide as you go, weighing each decision in the context in which you find it. But my concern with this is how is the decision being made? Without a set of guiding principles, one is inventing a moral system of choice for every context.

There are elements of my thinking that betray the rule deontologist in me. As I said earlier, certain contexts require a particular response, we have a duty or a moral imperative to act and failure to do so is unacceptable. It is also the case that we are all too human and missing the moral mark is unavoidable. Aristotle had a word for this albeit applied to his understanding of the hero’s fall from grace in Greek tragedy ‘hamartia’ (ἁμαρτία). We fall short or as hamartia actually means, we miss the mark.

I would argue that on the rough ground of adolescence, children need the security of being supported, they need to be shod. Roaming discalced may afford the freedom to feel the grass under one’s feet, but what happens when the going gets rough? Children and adolescents need the consistency of that framework of decision making that they learn and acquire through a catalogue of interactions with what you do and do not find acceptable.

While they may rail against the parameters you set, they need them. But as I mentioned to some parents last evening, the character defining examples do not come from single acts of spectacular heroism in moments of enlightened moral acuity where the right thing is done in sepia and recorded as a Hallmark greeting card. The saccharine depiction of the ease of this superficiality betrays the many pulls on the deontologist in our children.

In a time of moral choice, they feel a duty to friends, to principle and to being the ‘self’ they want to be. It is quite a different moral decision game when enacted in the incremental options played out in the playground. But be under no illusion, the formation of character in our children is a long process of missing the mark, of trying and failing well and trying again.

It is easy or sometimes convenient to give in and don’t we all, but it is in those moments where we quietly and grudgingly surrender a decision because of fatigue; the desire to feel loved or to avoid Armageddon that character is formed and children learn the right thing to do, or not. It is beyond text books or the esoteric climate of cosseted cognition. If they are to walk through life’s decisions, they need discernment. If they choose at times to be discalced and roam as they please, they do so because through our help they know how to put their shoes on when the time comes.

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Hampshire Collegiate School (@HeadmasterHCS

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