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Teaching independence

By Tim Middleton 

It is interesting how history can romanticise the wrongdoing of people and make them into heroes. Dick Turpin was one such figure in English history, being a highwayman involved in stealing, poaching and killing, ultimately being executed for horse robbery at the age of thirty-three in 1973, while a novel called Rockwood celebrated his life. In more recent times, namely 2018, his namesake David Turpin and his wife Louise were incarcerated for twenty-five years after it was found they had kept their twelve children captive in horrendous living conditions (including shackling them to beds, starving them, strangling them and other forms of abuse) for over 25 years. There was nothing heroic in such behaviour.

The Turpins, however, were not the worst offenders. Josef Fritzl kept his daughter Elizabeth imprisoned in a room in his basement in Austria for 24 years from the age of 18 because she “did not adhere to any rules anymore”, to keep her “by force if necessary, away from the outside world”. During those years, he assaulted, abused and raped her regularly, resulting in her having seven children by him. In 2009 he was himself imprisoned with a life sentence.

Such stories are gruesome, hard to believe and far from heroic. Imagine now a man who had a good childhood and developed into a respectable young man, keenly academic, physically talented, culturally diverse and socially responsible. Imagine though if this young man even in his forties had to go and get permission from his father to spend the money that he himself had earned through hard and honest work; imagine if this 40-year-old man had to ask for permission from his father to go and visit his friends in other cities; imagine if this responsible young man had to go to his father every time he wanted to have a weekend away or a longer holiday at a different time to his parents; imagine if he had to get permission to read certain material that his father did not have in his own house. What would we think? Is he crazy? Would the father be charged like Fritzl?

Furthermore, what would we think if we learned that the father, from whom the son had to receive all this permission (and more), had himself actually refused to work for a bigger international organisation but had gone his own way and started up his own company; had fought hard and long for the right and opportunity to be able to make his own decisions yet now denied his own child the same freedom, opportunity, independence? What would we make of such a man, who having escaped from his own imprisonment, inflicted it on his own child and indeed stole from his own child what was rightfully his? How would we view such a man? Is he any different from Turpin or Fritzl?

We know independence is deemed to be a priceless quality; it is fought for with great commitment by nations. Independence is, after all, about giving people the responsibility to do things on their own, without seeking permission all the time. It is preparing them to make the right decisions for themselves, which will work for the good not just of the individuals, but also for the good of the rest of society. So, in the same way, our role as parents is to prepare our children to be independent; we need to allow, teach, enable and empower them to be independent men and women, where they will do the right thing without being told what to do all the time and without always having to ask permission. Are we holding our children back in their education, by not encouraging independence? Are we denying them their independence? Are we training our youngsters to be responsible, free, accountable and, above all, independent? Are we keeping them by force from the outside world?

If it is good for a country to be independent, and for children to learn to be independent, then we do well to note that it follows that organisations and institutions must also be allowed and enabled to enjoy their own independence. Are we shackling and strangling institutions if we do not do so?

Regarding his treatment of his family, Fritzl claimed, “I am not the beast the media make me to be”; the jury, however, found otherwise. People who deny independence to others will, like Fritzl, always try to justify their actions. They will be guilty, though, like Dick Turpin, of highway robbery if they deny children their independence. The situations recorded above are real. We do well therefore, to remember what happened to Fritzl and the Turpins. No imagination is required, just independence.

  • Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS. email: ceo@atschisz.co.zw, website: www.atschisz

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