The joke, usually with Jewish mother as protagonist, goes something like this…
Mother and child on the beach. “Put on your hat…Let me put on more suncream on your arms…and legs…Watch out for the hot sand…But don’t catch a chill…Come here…Now! Look,you nearly fell in the sea…not with that boy, he’s dirty…The sun’s too hot, come under the shade…Cover yourself…not like that, like this…Now go and play”
“Oi”, she observes to her beach neighbour as her son totters away, “such a nervous child!”
Are we not doing something similar to our children as we watch anxiously over them and determine with iron certainty what is or isn’t good for them? Two apparently unrelated articles in the Guardian caught my eye. Both go to the question about what it is appropriate for children to contemplate in educational settings. What is it ok to teach about and what is beyond the pale?
In Tim Gill’s article “The end of zero risk in childhood” he cites the head of the Health and Safety Executive, Judith Hackitt :
“the creeping culture of risk aversion puts at risk children’s preparation for adult life“.
A combination of factors – including sensationalist reporting, cowering or lazy teachers, bureaucrats, short term political vision together with Americanisation of our legal practice and insurance companies in on the act – all have led to a “health and safety culture”. But in the UK understandable concerns about children’s wellbeing have been taken up to and beyond their logical conclusion. Now we are at the point where there is zero tolerance of risk. Hence Judith Hackitt’s remarks.
As Tim Gill reports, we do children no favours by bubble wrapping them so they do not encounter risk. This does not prepare them for anything. Treating children as “irredeemably stupid, as fragile as china plates, and utterly unable to learn from their mistakes” does not protect them; it leaves them vulnerable and ill prepared for assessing risk, which is after all, a daily fact of life.
In a UNICEF 2007 comparative survey of OECD countries measuring children’s wellbeing, UK children came second to last in terms of subjective well being, but did moderately well in “health and safety”. In other words our children are miserable, but pretty safe!
- Same sex relationships – what’s the problem?
Then there was the report of the Billy Elliot writer, Lee Hall, who has spent the last year working on a community in Bridlington involving 400 people of all ages. Sounds like a great project. One of the characters is gay. As a consequence, one of the Primary schools has withdrawn their support, notwithstanding efforts to conciliate.
What is the fear? Really, what is the problem? Same sex relationships are a part of our society. Not only are they within the law, Equalities legislation dictates that no discrimination should be suffered by anyone because of their sexuality. I have noticed, as I support schools in implementing Global Citizenship, that dealing with same sex relationships is particularly challenging for some adults, who think it is an inappropriate topic to be discussing with children, especially young ones.
But when we dig a little deeper, the primary concern is that same sex relationships are confused, in the minds of those who find this subject distateful, with sex. Why does that misconception persist? Surely teachers would no more discuss sex between same sex couples as between heterosexuals. The teaching issue is simply about the diversity of loving relationships that exist in every town and probably village in the country. Whether or not individual teachers engage in same sex relationships is not the question. Children will not become infected by discussion of relationships – they merely become more aware. It may even help them stop using “gay” as a derogatory term. It certainly will raise the esteem of those children, who through no active choice of their own, are gay. And isn’t it our duty to enable all the children in our charge to flourish? How can we achieve that if we do not allow children to feel a sense of self worth?
As I’ve said before, pupils have questions and concerns. They are by nature curious. We do them a disservice if we silence or stifle their innate curiosity or fail to answer their questions, however crass they may appear. Sweeping difficult or contested issues under the carpet does not make them disappear…they resurface as inevitably as prejudice follows ignorance.
Children are so much more than merely vulnerable dependents. So have the courage to let your pupils explore and take risks, ask difficult questions and be prepared to tackle those discussions with an openness and honesty that models acceptance of our diverse community.
Please let me know what you think.