Contact Channel Magazine

EDUCATION: With Peter Clague, Kristin School


Kristin School’s Executive Principal, Peter Clague, considers the analogy of farm fences in the education of our young men.

Years ago, when I lived on a euphemistically named “Lifestyle” block, I awoke one morning to discover the sheep contentedly munching on the last branches of a grove of native trees and shrubs that I had been carefully raising. The remnants of the electric fence that had once protected my plants lay tangled around the their hooves, power in the battery pack having long since run out. Resisting the urge to reach for the mint sauce, I replanted more trees, rebuilt the fence, and restocked a supply of batteries. And I abandoned my vain hope that the sheep would learn to stay away from the fence once they’d touched it the first time.

I was reminded of my fencing disaster while on a wilderness experience camp several years later. A group of Year 11 boys and I spent a wonderful five days living off the land on the back of a remote farm in the Far North. The farmer ran 200 very large bulls and needless to say, there were no flimsy tape, battery-powered fences in sight. His electric fence consisted of a single strand of thick twisted wire cable, tightly strung, clearly visible and carrying an uninterrupted current evenly over the paddocks.
Young bulls will always test fences and if they are weak and undefended they will inevitably break through. The occasional jolt from an electric fence reminds the bull of its limits and it moves away from danger with no lasting damage. There is no point in hoping that a bull will stay away from a fence just because it can see it is there. Farmers expect fences to be tested and smart ones build them accordingly.
As I contemplated those fences, the parallels with young people, particularly boys, were striking. Like young bulls, teenagers also need boundaries within which to operate. The fences, or rules, which we provide for them as parents and educators need to be clearly visible, reliably maintained and robust enough to withstand a little pushing at times. A weak fence tells a young person that the restriction is not thought to be worthy of defending and natural adolescent inquisitiveness combined with a growing desire for independence prompts them to give it a bit of a nudge.
A week on the farm (or was it a week with 20 young men?) reminded me that good guidance for young people should be as simple as a good fence. We need but a few rules, clearly seen and logically placed. They should carry a consequence that is persuasive but does no lasting damage. They should be regularly maintained so their importance is appreciated. We should not be surprised or disappointed if our children push hard against them occasionally, but we must not let them trample over the boundaries we set if we are to maintain their respect.
We build fences to keep our young people safe; if they want to leave they must go through the gates that we also will provide when they
are ready.

by Peter Clague