My son doesn’t like school. The signs started coming when his Montessori teacher said he was a good fit, could do the work, wasn’t disruptive, but, she joked, “is too cool for school.” Then came junior infants. We already had a wonderfully uncomplicated experience with our daughter at the local school. Kitted out in his mini-uniform and shiny Prince Charming hair, we assumed our son would do the same. It was not. At parents’ evening, his teacher said the exact phrase we’ve heard before: “Too cool for school” and ordered us to cut his hair because it’s getting in the way of his concentration.
unfortunately, his cropped man-bob didn’t pique his interest. I could hardly blame him. While we worked, he spent his formative years hanging out with my father – the ultimate man child. Their adventurous days were like an Enid Blyton novel: scraping rocks, climbing trees, building things, repairing motorcycles, riding quads, collecting chestnuts, examining insects. Why on earth would he want to go to school after that?
To counteract the “damage” Grandpa had done, I hosted playdates, provided delicious lunches… bribes. We were going through third grade when one day he flatly refused to get out of the car. The game was over. Weeks of persuasion, tears and meetings with the principal and teacher followed. Outwardly nothing was wrong. Fearing bullying or exclusion, they kept an eye on him and reported that he was happily playing with other children. His work wasn’t flawless, but he did it and they didn’t suspect any additional learning needs. Heartbroken, I begged my son to tell me something different than what he had already told me. His answer stayed the same. He didn’t like school.
Ask any parent what they wish for their child and they will automatically say happiness. I felt completely helpless in the face of an unhappy son because school is not optional. He had to go. Unless I was planning a home school, our hands were tied. We did the only thing I could and put him in a different school – one with less consistency, smaller classes and a more child-led attitude. Maybe it would work. Granted it was an improvement, because a change is as good as a vacation, but vacation ends like the new. Would secondary school be different?
Now a sophomore in a school with excellent physical education and practical subjects like woodwork, if I could use one word to describe his progress it would be ‘great’. Deep down I know he’s not enthusiastic about school, but he’s more accepting that he has to go for now.
Still, I often wonder if I somehow let him down. On the days when he comes home happy, my heart sings. When he’s a little grumpy (perfectly normal for a teenager, I know), I panic. Sometimes I find myself telling him to be more like his sisters and move on because I naively expected all my children to be the same, but of course they aren’t.
When I think about it, what I love most about him is his nonconformist attitude, uniqueness and stubbornness. He’s definitely not lazy. When he gets his mind on something or when he’s interested, he’s one of the most determined people I know. He took his first steps at nine months and is still ridiculously coordinated to this day – skateboarding, dirt biking, sports, working on engines, building. He’s smart too. He could get good grades if he wanted to, but he doesn’t want to, and I’m beginning to accept that I can’t force him.
He knows his thoughts, far more intent on pleasing himself than placating me or anyone else. Isn’t that what we hope for our children when we say we don’t care what they do in life as long as they are happy? Haven’t we already had our chance? Ask him what he wants to be when he’s older and he’ll immediately say mechanic or builder. To be honest, I think it’s in his blood. It is who he is. His only question is when he can leave school to start his education.
Speaking to Ballinteer Community School’s senior class director, Emma Murphy, she says that students who don’t like school end up being successful in an apprenticeship. Her job is to support these students through what for many parents feels like being “pulled” through the system. Alongside traditional apprenticeships – builder, plumber, electrician and hairdresser – it reminds me of the navy, army, auctioneering, ESB and Bord Gáis. The good news, she says, is whenever she meets people who didn’t enjoy school, most have found something to spur them on. “They’re like other people,” she laughs. “It’s great to see.”
Many take jobs after school and then enter college as mature students when they find what they want to do. “I tell my students that one way or another, they’re going to do exactly what they’re supposed to do,” she encourages. “But some parents still hold on to their children going to secondary school, even if it’s not always the best path for them.”
Caoimhe Farrell, a careers counselor from Carlow, has had the same experience. “When did a trade become something to look down on?” she asks. “There is now a third level course for students of all levels. But once they get into a course, it can be difficult to stay there. The courses are tough. Many young adults would be far better suited to an education and a more hands-on way of learning. But there is often a stigma or snobbery. In a way, we need to start seeing apprenticeships on an equal footing with tertiary education.”
Snobbishness is something that also appeals to Simon Harris, Minister for Further Education and Higher Education, along with a uniquely Irish attitude that the only way to progress is through university. This year, students can see further training opportunities and apprenticeships on the CAO application to counteract the shortage of craftsmen.
One thing is for sure, higher education is not for my son. As the daughter and sister of master builders, I see crafts as crafts, as a viable and profitable path to self-employment. If my son shows enough zest for action, my brother will hopefully find him an apprenticeship so that he can follow in his beloved grandfather’s footsteps. We need the suits, the intelligence, the medics, the creatives, but the world will always need craftsmen. They are the ones who give us a home, light, warmth, working cars, and most importantly, beautiful hair!
At school I encourage my son to do his best, show up on time and do what is asked of him, but I don’t spend his precious teenage years standing over him and yelling at him to study. We put the horse in the water. The rest is up to him.
In an ideal world, I’d want him to do his leaving cert if he changes his mind, but if he’s still adamant about leaving school at 16, then we’ll talk about it. I really don’t think the school system let him down. With almost 400,000 children in secondary education in Ireland, I understand that it is impossible to provide a tailored experience for children who are unenthusiastic about school or who refuse to adapt. I would be happier with more resources for neurodivergent kids or kids with additional needs than for those who just don’t care.
School may not be the best of his life, but I know the next phase will be. Chances are he’ll buy and sell me in his early twenties.
I have always believed in him and always will. So much so that I’m pre-booking him for 2030 to build his mother a lovely little conservatory. He must be busy. It’s always the good guys.
https://www.independent.ie/life/family/parenting/my-son-doesnt-like-school-he-never-has-and-ive-finally-accepted-i-cant-change-that-42022053.html “My son doesn’t like school, he never has – and I’ve finally accepted that I can’t change that”