It’s the holidays. Leave them kids alone.
Posted on April 9, 2019
I have a trick that I’ve played on students of all ages, from teenagers to postgraduates, over the years. I ask them to read the brief commentary below and then have a guess about its origins:
Children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their elders. They think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they alone knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for girls, they are forward, immodest and unwomanly in speech, behaviour and dress.
Before you start googling Daily Mail editorials or checking to see whether or not Jacob Rees-Mogg has just launched a new guide to child-rearing, I’ll tell you the answer; it’s the Greek philosopher Socrates and he wrote it about two and half millennia ago – around 420 B.C.
His comments resonate down the centuries and even has a nod in the direction of the perennial penchant for specific irritation when young women demonstrate non-compliance. What the old boy’s comments show is that children have always frustrated and bemused their parents and have found increasingly inventive and bewildering ways to do so. Take, for example, MLE.
No? Multicultural London English. My guess is that you recognise it now, because you’ve heard it being used – not by rough and nasty inner-city rascals, but by shiny, suburban kids on the bus near you. It outrages some parents and teachers when language they think belongs exclusively to street-crime, issues from the mouths of pampered babes who cannot possibly know of what they speak. But whether they do or not is hardly the point. Part of the reason they’re doing it is to annoy adults; it’s their job. And they’re good at it – and it works.
Or let’s stir in the ageless wrangle about appearance, particularly as it pertains to school uniform. I spent nearly thirty years teaching in comprehensive schools and one certainty I gleaned among many was this: those teachers, often quite senior and experienced, who made it their life’s mission to ensure that shirts were tucked in, that ties were a certain length, that make-up had not been too thickly applied or that hair and skirts were neither too long or too short, usually exhibited personality defects of a worrying order. In the male of the species, this was often unwittingly revealed by a fondness for the cartoon tie or the wacky sock. Any derision that came their way from youngsters was deserved. Uniform refusers and recidivists knew exactly what they were doing. They were infuriating adults, because it was their job to do so and they revelled in refining their art with every escalating altercation.
We need the rebelliousness of the young more than ever – however enduringly inane its forms. But for all the apparent timelessness of Socrates’ observations, the contemporary teenager finds her/himself in a uniquely unenviable place. If you’re lucky enough to have a local bookshop, drop in and you’ll see what I mean.
Shelf after towering shelf of self-help books all directed toward one aim: making your child better at tests and exams. Drills, exercises, short-cuts and enough snake oil to keep quacks in whiskey and dancing girls until the salon doors rot away. From 5 to 16 and beyond, there’s a cure here for everyone, folks. Roll up, roll up.
At the till, an anxious mum. On her phone, a picture of a revision booklet. There is no child in view. ‘What year is he in?’ asks the assistant. ‘Year 11?’ ‘No. Year 8.’ I button my lip. Year 8? That makes him 12, possibly 13. It’s the first day of the holidays. What’s he revising for? And why? Can’t he just loll about for a bit? Brush up on his MLE, perhaps?
In some ways, this kid is lucky. If he did happen to be in Year 11, the chances are that, holiday or not, he’d be in school for revision lessons, especially if the poor unfortunate happened to find himself on a grade boundary – wherever that happens to have been whimsically placed by this year’s favoured civil servant at the Department for Education.
I pause to offer a word of reassurance to anyone quietly fulminating at my flippancy. As exams approached, I taught kids every trick, ruse and technique to squeeze every last mark out of every last paper. It was my job to ensure that they did the very best they could (and, as you’re asking, I was bloody good at it). The point, however, is that this came at the end of the process: it was not the process itself. Our current system, which would put kids on the measurement treadmill at the moment of conception if it could, has made it impossible for everyone – teachers, parents and the children themselves – to separate assessment, which should be the culmination of the process, from real education and learning. The next anxious, well-meaning parent who buys the next paltry revision guide just exacerbates this glum situation.
In a world where the devil has made more work for idle thumbs than ever before, it’s understandable that we should want to ensure that our children are safe and productively occupied. However, the constant humming drone about the primacy of tests and exams, even during holiday time, only worsens a situation in which publication after publication reveals the way in which such stifling concern robs children of happiness and self-reliance. In a world where even the sanctuary and privacy of a bedroom can be invaded day and night, the least we can do is try to tone down their fretfulness.
So when they’re being daft, noisy and rude and when they’re speaking in grunted monosyllables that you don’t understand, just take it easy. They’re doing their job. And they’ve been doing it for centuries. Shut up, force a grin and leave them to it.