How school makes children whole

teachers-wide Photo: Getty

Often journalists ask me what I think is the main impact of my work. I tend to think of the simple messages - that by age twelve, boys should be cooking family meals. That girls need aunties or auntie surrogates, who can help with the things they just can’t tell their mum. That starting school too young is bad for children, as borne out by recent research. That often the best way we can help our children is by slowing down our lives and theirs. And perhaps the biggest of all - the huge contribution that dads can make, and do make to the wellbeing of children.

Running through all of these, is the idea of role modelling. The more we discover from neuroscience, the more important role-models turn out to be. Using special nerve cells called mirror neurons, we take in other people’s attitudes, manners of speech, ways of moving and thinking, gradually making them our own. So we don’t just learn maths, we learn the maths teacher. Kind or grumpy, focused or fuzzy, the person is the curriculum. It's impossible to overstate the significance of this - it literally makes us who we are. Each of us is a bundle of all the role models we have ever had. For our boys to BE good men, they have to SEE good men. To BE strong women, girls must SEE strong women.   

Role modelling isn’t necessarily gendered, but what researchers call “perceived similarity” plays a big part. We are more likely to emulate those of our own race, our own background, and our own gender, because we can see a plausible pathway for our life to follow. “That could be me!” the child can’t help but think.  

Parents are a child’s first models of kindness, care, firmness and fun. But we all have deficiencies, and there are hundreds of other qualities we want our kids to acquire in the long years of growing up. So the big challenge as parents is how to get them into the company of lots of great people. Not just the Kens and Barbies they see on TV.   

School is our best help for this. Schools are many boys’ best and only chance of seeing an alternative way of being a man.  They may be the only places where our daughters meet such a diverse collection of capable and interesting women. And the opposite sex learning is great too. Good men teachers treat girls as being so much more than their looks. Some women teachers are superb with boys.

I remember a young primary teacher who took her class outside in every maths class. Her students thought maths was an outdoor activity - as they measured, surveyed, and did their calculations in the real world. As a boy there were women teachers I felt a profound love for, and still carry the benefits from to this day. Women teachers demonstrate to boys that women too are diverse, that they deserve respect, and that they are interesting. Many a young man starts to broaden out what he might seek in a partner, as a result of some stereotype-busting woman he meets in school. 

When you walk into school next week with your child, give an appreciative smile to the teachers you see. They are giving the kids not just lessons, but themselves.  

Steve Biddulph is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology. His books, including Raising Girls, Raising Boys, and The New Manhood, are in four million homes around the world.