Hello, Jake, how are you?”
“How was your day at school?”
“Have you got much homework?”
“What is it?”
“Darling, is everything OK? You’re very quiet.”
“Can you at least look at me when I’m talking to you? I’m asking if you’re OK.”
“I just told you, I’m fine. Stop going on at me.”
“I don’t think checking you’re OK is going on at you. I am your mother, you know.”
“OK, OK, I’m fine, everything’s OK, please can you give me some peace?”
“How dare you . . .”
Before you ask, this is not a memoir from my adolescence. It is an extract from Divas & Door Slammers: the secrets to having a better behaved teenager, a new book by the behavioural expert and inner-city headmaster Charlie Taylor. This dialogue is part of a case study, illustrating how easy it is for parents to alienate their teenagers.
“Teenagers have an inbuilt capacity to annoy their parents,” says the author when we meet at a café in Notting Hill, West London. “The sight of a pair of low-slung trousers, or a great spotty oaf slouched across the sofa, is enough to make any parent’s blood boil.” But, according to Taylor, teenagers can’t always help it. “Their brains are developing at a tremendous rate,” he says. “There is a huge amount of activity flaring in different directions. Neurones are sparking all over the place, making them go haywire.”
This means that if a cycle of bad behaviour is to end, it must be the parents who end it. “Your teenager is not going to change unless you change,” says Taylor. “If you do what you have always done, you will get what you always get.”
So what, in Jake’s case, should his mother have done differently? “Jake was sulky because he knew that his mother’s greeting had strings attached,” says Taylor. “Her real agenda was to hassle him about his homework. She should have waited until they had at least one reasonable conversation in the bank.”
Taylor is one of a dying breed of eccentric British headmasters, with crystalline manners, a posh voice and the air of a dishevelled diplomat. He has faded Biro on the back of one hand and looks perpetually tired. Yet, at the same time, he is brimming with joie de vivre.
He grew up in Notting Hill, in a family with a rich tradition of pedagogy (his “famously fierce” grandmother was the head of a prep school in Eastbourne). He went to Eton, then undertook a four-year teaching degree before starting work at a comprehensive. Before long he developed a fascination — and affinity — with badly behaved children. He has worked with them ever since.
“I used to be badly behaved myself,” he tells me, a flicker of old mischief in his eye. “Once, my friends and I tied up a teacher with a skipping rope. We were sent home and my mother was very cross. But all I could say was: ‘But Mum, it was brilliant!’” He pauses for a moment. “Maybe you shouldn’t put that in,” he says. Another pause. “Oh, what the hell. It was a long time ago.”
Taylor’s school in West London aims to get children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties back into mainstream education. Since he took over the place has been transformed, and it is now the darling of Ofsted inspectors. “Don’t get me wrong — the job is dangerous,” he admits. “Many of my staff have been put in hospital by pupils.” He winces. “But we have a very high success rate. It’s incredibly rewarding.”
A key part of Taylor’s approach is the “positive touch policy”. “Being restrained is very similar to being hugged,” he says. “When I first arrived, I saw children attacking teachers just to get restrained, because they received no physical affection at home. So I told all the teachers that hugging was part of their job. They worried that it was illegal but emphatically it is not. It made a massive difference.”
His pupils also give each other ten minutes of massage every day. “There was a lot of resistance to the idea at first,” says Taylor, “but it’s so moving to see a scary hoody tenderly massaging another pupil. A lot of teenagers would behave much better if they received positive touch from their parents.”
So what led Taylor to write this book? “I realised that being a teenager in 2010 is much more complicated than it was in the past,” he says. “Mobile phones and social networking mean that children can have access to the entire globe in the secrecy of their bedroom. Marriage breakdowns are increasing and teenagers are bombarded constantly with images of sex and glamour. In addition, schools have been set very narrow curriculum targets. This means that teachers do anything to meet those targets, at the expense of everything else.”
All this, according to Taylor, has a detrimental effect on teenage behaviour. “Some parents are terrified of their children,” he says, “because they don’t know how to control them.”
In his book, he describes a father who “immediately gets butterflies in his stomach” when presented with a photograph of his 14-year-old son, and a mother whose pulse leaps from 80 to 100 just by “imagining her son for a few minutes”.
Taylor, who had already written a book about getting toddlers to behave, felt compelled to act. “Parents need these skills,” he says. “Deep down, teenagers want to be disciplined. They are not really happy running wild. That’s why I wrote this book.”
The central premise of Divas & Door Slammers is that teenagers should be treated more as children than as adults. Like a boy whose voice is breaking — Taylor’s metaphor, not mine — the teenager may sometimes seem very grown up but at other times will lapse into a childish squeak.
“Teenagers are trying to distance themselves from their parents and establish their identity,” he says, “but despite their ‘cool’ exterior they are children at heart. They still need their parents to be there for them, to give them cuddles and support.”
One of the best ways to improve a teenager’s behaviour is to use what Taylor calls a “6 to 1 strategy”. This means that every piece of criticism is balanced by six pieces of praise.
“When a toddler is potty training, parents instinctively pile on the praise. They try not to focus on the accidents, however unpleasant they may be,” says Taylor. “But as the child grows up, the praise tails off and parents can become quite critical. So, when dealing with your teenager, think of potty training.”
But that is only one side of the story. “You also need to have very clear boundaries,” says Taylor, “and enforce them with rewards and punishments. The best incentive is money. Teenagers are interested in little else.”
Isn’t that rather like paying children to be good? “That’s not the idea,” says Taylor. “You must target only one specific piece of bad behaviour at a time, and have a time limit — say, a month — after which you end the deal. If a child is living in a permanent system of incentives and deterrents, that can be very damaging.”
Parents must also take special care not to get into what Taylor calls “reptile mode” — a state of stress that prevents people from thinking straight. “Biologically speaking,” he explains, “stress diverts blood away from the rational brain and towards the areas responsible for ‘fight or flight’. You start making exaggerated accusations or wild threats. At that point, confrontation is inevitable.”
But how do you avoid it? “The key is to plan your strategies in advance,” says Taylor. In his book, he compares confronting a teenager to going into battle. “If you have a clear idea of your objectives and strategies for dealing with behavioural hotspots,” he says, “that will stop you seeing red and help to keep your reptile mode at bay. Eventually, like a well-trained soldier, it will become second nature.”
This sounds all well and good. But here is the litmus test: what about his children?
“Impeccably behaved,” he chuckles. “Obviously.” I look doubtful. “Seriously,” he says, “they are naughty but just the right amount. That’s what I mean by impeccable. It is the repetitive patterns of bad behaviour that you have to worry about. If they were all little angels I’d be very concerned indeed.”
As we make our way out of the café, Taylor is collared by a frazzled-looking woman on the next table. She has overheard our conversation and wants the name of his book so that she can buy it. “Poor woman,” says Taylor, after writing down the details for her. “I hope my book solves her problems.”