Children do not want to be successful adults. They want to be successful children.

Part of growing up as a teacher is becoming used to being given advice, both requested and unsolicited, and learning how to react to it in the culturally appropriate way. This means smiling, nodding and making a pretence at gratitude even if the advice is poorly timed, unwelcome, unhelpful or just plain crazy. Ben Newman is a Head of Humanities and History teacher and writes for i News.

But usually we don’t miss the really good stuff. It sticks, burrowing deep into our psyches.

To my shame I cannot remember who first told me “children don’t want to be successful adults, they want to be successful children”, but it stuck and I think it a useful insight to understanding so much of what goes on in the lives of our students.

Childhood is a strange, bizarre and often surreal world that most adults forget soon after they leave it. A few writers retain an understanding. Phillip Pullman, Donna Tartt, William Golding and, of course, Roald Dahl among others seem to have a talent for authentically describing the shimmering, dark world that children inhabit.

Childhood is all-encompassing and those in it, usually in full on survival mode, do not spend time thinking systematically about what will happen them to when it ends. Indeed, I wonder if this is really any easier than it is for adults to think about what happens to us after we die.

I remember feeling this very keenly as a boy of about eleven, when I moved from a local primary school connected to my church, to a middle school some distance away. Here, for the first time, I felt different. I was different. It was a predominantly working class school and I was middle class. The other children already knew each other well, I did not. I went to church every Sunday. Few other children there did.

I do not share this story for sympathy. I would be a fool to. My privileges have, of course, in the long run very predictably turned out to be enormous assets, educationally, financially, professionally and personally too. But, as a child I neither recognised this, and nor would I have cared if I had. My school life was miserable and I would have done anything to be happier. The idea that by working hard I was more likely to be a successful adult one day, and should take comfort from this abstract idea, was inconceivable to me because my world was all-encompassing and the idea of ‘growing up’ had very little meaning.

To accept this is to accept that trying to motivate children by asking them to imagine their lives after school might be at best limited and at worst ineffectual. If we are to make children want to be successful at school, then we must make being successful at school part of being a successful child, not a sacrifice necessary for a better future.

Read the full article Children do not want to be successful adults. They want to be successful children. 

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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  1. Ben Newman recalls a very different childhood to my own, though stark similarities exist. For 4 years I was educated without regular contact with my parents, a teenage life nearer Lord of the flies than Peter Pan.
    Time crawled by, made happier by learning to smoke and playing sport. As a school leader for 36 years, I agree with the precept of opening a child’s opportunities for a happier now. We are young only once.

  2. Graham Nutbrown

    Ben Newman writes that “Children do not want to be successful adults. They want to be successful children. We should make that easy for them by creating conditions in which being a hard-working academically engaged child is part of successful childhood identity.” When I first read this I agreed whole-heartedly…but then doubts crept in. Is it for teachers to define what a “successful” childhood is – for all children? Is there a presupposition here that satisfying a curiosity for knowledge and understanding, and building a settled identity around that, is only achieved via successful academic study? If not, is there instead an implication that formal education is, after all, about some future state but to motivate children to learn we have to pretend that it isn’t? As William Hazlitt pointed out, the future doesn’t exist, so there can be no causal connection between our present selves and our future selves. Motivation, and imagination, can only affect our present sense of who we are and would like to become. The writers Ben refers to help children to project themselves into more adult lives, as do teachers. To create an either/or of schooling being about successful adulthood or about successful childhood seems like a false dichotomy, not least because “childhood” is not a fixed state of being.

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