Monday, 7 July 2008

Speaking with children

The genesis of this piece was the discussion on Bristol IndyMedia newswire about attacks on the cycle path in Easton. What particularly struck me about these attacks was that people referred to the attackers as `groups of kids'. Why would children do this? Well I've got no answers but this piece outlines the trail that my thoughts have taken in the weeks since reading the discussion...

In just over a month's time I expect to become a dad for the first time. That admission should tell you all you need to know about my interest in the question of parenting... and about my current ignorance of the subject.

Not long since I was talking to a young relative of mine (let's call him Ben) who had got himself in a lot of trouble with his family, due to misbehaviour at school. He'd been excluded for a couple of days over an incident - the first time that (to his family's knowledge) he'd been in any serious trouble at school.

What struck me, when I spoke to him about it, was how little his voice had been heard by the rest of his family. A version of events had come forth from teachers at the school and this had been immediately received as the whole story, with Ben cast as the villain of the piece. Undoubtedly Ben had been pretty naughty, but when I talked to him it was also clear that some of the teachers had probably got the wrong end of the stick.

In the family's eyes though, the most important thing was for Ben to understand the importance of submitting to authority. They were concerned that he learned to `behave' for his teachers, and to do as he was told, for fear that his behaviour would spiral out of control and he'd ruin his chance for a decent education. Their concerns were well-intentioned and, to some degree, well-founded. My reservation is that we can become so focussed on getting a particular message across that we lost sight of the `truth' within a situation.

It was an issue I came across when I worked in homeless hostels in Bristol. Residents would often come to staff members griping about any number of issues; a lot of the time it was simply a way of venting their frustration at the daily difficulties of their existence and all I needed to do was be sympathetic, and help them to calm down a little. Sometimes though their complaints were related to serious issues relating to how the hostel was run, or the behaviour of other residents, and the `calm down' response was not appropriate; just diffusing the complaint was missing the point. The problem was that I (and my fellow workers) were just seeing the person doing the complaining as the problem and, again, not sighting the `truth' within the situation.

Another example: the government's message about drugs. This is another example of how just focusing on a `message' that we want to communicate can fall down if it doesn't tally with the truth. The government and their clients, the mainstream media, are so obsessed with demonising drugs and drug-takers, supposedly with a view to putting kids off taking drugs (although a discussion of the real motivation could take a while), that their portrayal of the issue is entirely skewed. It is impossible to have a serious debate about drugs because everyone involved is so focussed on `getting the message across'.

The problem with all this, well-intentioned as it may be, is that people - children, in particular - can see through it. They know when people's response to a situation is skewed or, in their words, `unfair'. Such a perception results in a number of negative phenomena.

Firstly the message that people are trying to communicate, legitimate as it might be, gets lost. In the case of Ben, his family wanted him to understand the value of getting a good education, and the foolishness of ruining his opportunity with bad behaviour. It's a good message and it's a real shame if it gets lost amidst his frustration that everyone is taking sides against him. A similar principal applies in the case of drugs: god forbid that anyone should find out that you can have brilliant times on drugs. And why should this (obvious) admission detract from a serious underlying message: that drugs can fuck you up?

The second consequence of this sort of propogandising is that it diminishes respect for the `truth'. I won't go into a long and involved philosophical debate about the absoluteness or otherwise, of `truth'; what I'm referring to is not a philosophical concept but the idea that people should speak with integrity. That we should speak with children (or homeless people, or anyone) with candour and with respect for them and their capacity to understand the world around them. This also admits the legitimacy of the other party taking a different view on things. Being open to this possibility can be draining, and takes a lot of patience, but I believe it is worth it.

I want to give one more example of the conflict between `the message' and `the truth'. Too often families take the opposite approach to Ben's family, and the the effects are just as damaging. Namely they defend their child's actions to the hilt and refuse to admit (outside the family sphere at least) that criticism of their child is legitimate. This can build an unhealthy sense of invincibility, a sense in the child that they have carte blanche to be as obnoxious as they like. Once more the message has become warped because it did not tally with the truth.

Needless to say I have no idea whether any of these reflections are directly relevant to the kids who were beating people up on the cycle track. Relevant or not though, they have crystallized a determination in my mind, a determination to speak the truth, as best I can, with my own child. Let's see now if I can live up to my good intentions...

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