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Letter Reassures me I'm Doing Okay as a Mother

By Carol Duncan - 4th July 2011

This parenting business can make you feel all manner of insecure. I worry about my kids being safe, about them being healthy, having friends at school and trying to do their best in class. I get worried when the boys fight and squabble, and I used to often wonder, “Is this normal?”

I don’t worry so much about the normal bit any more, but I do worry about how they’re fitting in at school. Are our boys learning well, are they managing their own emotions and dealing with the behaviour of others around them?

Chats with teachers a few times a year always allay my fears and reassure me that, as a mother, I’m not actually too bad.

But this week, an unexpected and wonderful thing happened. So wonderful I even had a little cry.

Over the last decade of hosting a radio program with the ABC, I’ve had many occasions to interview a man I consider to be an incredible source of parenting and educational wisdom. Peter McNair has retired from teaching and I had the great pleasure of once broadcasting my show live from his last high school as principal. I spent the day at Peter’s school and I was astounded by how different the environment was there to the environment that I remember, with very little pleasure, of my own high school.  It was obvious that the students at his school loved him, respected him and enjoyed his company.

In our interviews, I’ve often slipped in questions that may have relevance to my own children, and my concerns. I’ve always thought that as I have the opportunity to learn from people I consider wise and experienced, I’d be mad not to take it. Over the years Peter has dropped in books for me to read that he's thought I might find interesting or helpful. And every time I’ve interviewed him, I’ve wished there had been a teacher like him influencing my younger years.

He began his teaching career in NSW in 1965, becoming a high school principal in 1989 until he left teaching in 2005.  In 1998, Peter also became a NSW Juvenile Justice Youth Justice Conference Convenor - something which he continues to this day; he has conducted over 250 conferences as a senior convenor in NSW. Peter has seen and had to help young people deal with some truly difficult, sometimes harrowing situations. But he remains as encouraged by young people as ever.

This week, Peter rang me. I had just finished my program when I picked up the phone to hear his ever-cheery voice inform me that he'd had an interesting meeting that day.

Peter met my eldest son, Mr 9, while he was visiting our school helping the children with their debating skills. I didn’t know he was going to be there, but apparently he & Mr 9 discovered they had someone in common.

And this is what Peter said to me (I asked him to write it down for me as I was stunned, teary and delirious and I wanted to share it with every parent who has ever had a moment of doubt about the worth of their parenting. So this is for all of you.)

Dear Carol,

On Monday I had the pleasure of meeting your son. He was part of a group of about 16 students at school where I was doing a debating workshop.
When I arrived he and a few of the early arrivals had organised for themselves an impromptu spelling bee. They enthusiastically allowed me, a complete stranger to them, to join in by giving them debating terms to spell. They really got into this and it set a great platform for the workshop. How’s that for student-centred independent learning!
Your son introduced himself with the words, “my mother knows you” and I was a bit apprehensive about what his mother knew. Then he told me his mother was Carol Duncan -  another surprise to me as I had totally not expected this encounter. I immediately thought of the numerous times you have spoken to me on air and the friendly engaging manner you have which puts your guests so much at ease. I also recalled that I have heard you talk about your children with obvious love and pride, but with all the normal insecurities of a parent. I know - I’ve had 5 children.
During the workshop he impressed me with his willingness to be part of the learning. He is well informed on current issues – he spoke intelligently about the carbon tax for instance. He  contributed to his group thoughtfully and it was obvious that he likes others and they like him. Above all his bright eyes showed an intelligence and empathy that is gold. By the end of the workshop with others he was able to speak on his feet with arguments both for and against why cars are preferable to public transport.
Alex is not unique – there are thousands of bright young things in our schools. But he is unique to you and your family. You should be proud that your family is part of the life of such a delightful person. Mind you his personality is no surprise to me. Along with your thousands of listeners I am amazed at the range of topics you so fluently address each day, week after week. Your manner is always encouraging, non-confrontational, yet always perceptive. When you are interviewed by Carol Duncan you know you have to be up to the mark.
Once again please accept my admiration for the pleasure it gave me to be a small part of the life of your son.

The photo above is Mr 9 with his grandather.

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