That letter

by Chris Bertram on September 12, 2006

The open letter on childhood written by a bunch of academics, authors, celebrities and others (including Harry’s dad) seems to me causing a bit of a stir. Why did they send it to the Telegraph I wonder, rather than the Times (the traditional place) or the Guardian (read by more people who work with children, I imagine). Perhaps they think that Cameron’s Tories are going to win the next UK election and that they might make more impact on policy via the Telegraph. Anyway, it is hard not so sympathize with their sentiments even if the list of issues is an odd assortment:

  • Children’s brains can’t adjust to rapid social change.

  • Junk food is bad for their development.

  • Sitting in front of video screens all day is really bad for kids: they need to go out and play.

  • Children need to have adults who pay attention to them, talk to them etc.

  • School starts too young, is too competitive and there’s far too much testing.

  • Children are pressured to dress like small adults—surely they mean that girls are dressed in an excessively sexualized way at an unsuitably young age—and are being exposed to quasi (and not so quasi) porno images via the internet.
  • Well what do you expect? If you make a lot of noise about having to have a competitive and flexible labour force—as NuLab have—then mum and dad are going to be working all hours to pay the mortgage, and when they are at home are going to slump in front of the TV after they’ve heated the ready-meals in the microwave. It wasn’t alway like this, of course. Look at Astérix chez les Bretons (1965) and you’ll see the Brits being ridiculed by the French for their relaxed pace of life, for taking time off for tea, and for keeping the weekend sacred. I guess we had time for children then too.

    { 1 trackback }

    Crooked Timber » » The agenda of child well-being policies
    09.19.06 at 1:44 am

    { 56 comments }

    1

    Sam Dodsworth 09.12.06 at 4:32 am

    I think I see why this was published in the Telegraph:

    They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past.

    Can anyone come up with a coherent reason why this is a particularly bad thing? Preferably without going off on a tangent about the general issue of weather it’s OK to aim advertising at children?

    Also, and perhaps more tellingly:

    Since children’s brains are still developing, they cannot adjust – as full-grown adults can – to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change.

    Apparently, children don’t find it easier to learn new things than adults. Instead, their ‘brains develop’ (presumably with inherited insticts?) in a process that requires an absolute minimum of change in their surrounding environment. So sending them off to school would be out, then?

    All in all, it looks like a typical badly thought out exercise in small-c conservativism. “Modern chidren don’t have the exactly the same experience of childhood that we did. This must be stopped!”

    2

    Ray 09.12.06 at 4:37 am

    That first one is a bit odd. In what sense do kids experience rapid cultural and technological change? Don’t they just assume that the way things are now is the way that things are – mobile phones and home computers are as much part of the furniture of their lives as televisions and cars. (And equally, they can’t be confused by the tolerance for gay people compared to how things were when they were growing up because, you know…)
    Okay, you can discuss whether or not recent cultural and technological changes have created a good environment for children, but the pace of change?

    3

    Matt McIrvin 09.12.06 at 4:55 am

    It’s adults who are upset by rapid cultural and technological change.

    4

    Andrew Brown 09.12.06 at 5:37 am

    But they are not saying that children can’t adapt torapid change. They are saying that they can’t adapt to _the effects of_ rapid technological and cultural change — ie what we have today. That’s a perfectly defensible statement.

    Equally, the exposure of children to quasi-porn and absolute porn, is not very controversially a bad thing. I know there are regions of the internet where masturbation is regarded as a fundamental human right, but CT isn’t one of them. Commentators will now attempt to disprove this, I know.

    The question, surely, is whether Cameron or anyone else can do anything about all this, or whether it is the inexorable outcome of wider global trends. In any case, the denials of children’s interests that workers do to their children in rich countries are still less unpleasant than those which workers in poor countries are driven to.

    5

    Ray 09.12.06 at 5:53 am

    What is the difference between “rapid change” and “the effects of rapid change”? If the rapid changes are having rapidly-changing effects, we’re back were we started. If the effects aren’t changing rapidly, what does it matter if the changes themselves are rapid?

    Anyway, there are plenty of things Cameron or Blair’s replacement could do – ban advertising of junk food during children’s programming, fund better school dinners, legislate for longer and more flexible parental leave, stop the selling off of school playing fields… ‘At least they’re not in Bangladesh’ doesn’t seem to be a useful response.

    6

    bago 09.12.06 at 6:12 am

    “Children’s brains can’t adjust to rapid social change. “

    Right, like growing 2 inches in a year, suddenly developing full sized sex organs, changing clothes and peer groups annually in school, learning new languages with relative ease, or keeping pace with youth oriented culture and spreading and dropping fads like bad hats.
    Children are obviously lousy at dealing with change, which is why they’re always talking about the adults and their music today, and admonishing them to get off of their lawns.

    7

    Chris Bertram 09.12.06 at 6:22 am

    Since people are homing in on this point, let me just quote the relevant sentence from the letter verbatim, so that people don’t rely on my paraphrase:

    “Since children’s brains are still developing, they cannot adjust – as full-grown adults can – to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change.”

    8

    abb1 09.12.06 at 6:33 am

    What rapid change, nothing’s ever changing.

    The telephones have buttons now instead of discs? Reading off the computer screen instead of paper? Big deal.

    9

    Ray 09.12.06 at 6:37 am

    I don’t think the point is greatly improved. Children are in many ways better at adjusting to change than adults are, because they don’t have fixed ideas about the world that are becoming outdated (or they do, but those ideas would become outdated anyway just by the process of growing up, even without any surrounding change).

    I think what they’re trying to say is that adults are bad at keeping up with rapid change and adjusting our behaviour to support our children in a changing environment, and that children suffer because of this failure. And the fact that children’s brains are still developing makes them particularly vulnerable to our failures. But the sentence as it is doesn’t make any sense to me.

    10

    bi 09.12.06 at 6:43 am

    Eh, “regular interaction” with adults…? Well, many of the adults behind this open letter ostensibly work with children for a living, and many are probably parents too, but I’m not sure whether that counts as real regular interaction, or is it just some sort of faux interaction where the child talks, the adult talks, and then… hey, who cares what the child talked about, that’s not important anyway.

    11

    JO'N 09.12.06 at 6:54 am

    C’mon, people, this isn’t too hard to understand, if you want to. Children are on a schedule of rapid changes of their own, and therefore don’t necessarily react well to a completely different (and orthogonal) economically-driven changes. For that matter, it seems pretty well understood (by people who study such things — I only read about it) that children, possibly because they’re changing so rapidly on their own, are best raised in a somewhat static envoronment.

    So, that’s what I understood from it, anyway. But don’t let me stop anyone from quibbling about infalicitous prose — this *is* a blog, after all.

    12

    Alan 09.12.06 at 7:04 am

    It might have been better to substitute the word “families” for “children, then; it’s nonsensical as it stands.

    13

    Aaron_M 09.12.06 at 7:07 am

    Is it that they have just formulated the claim that children need stable home environments very poorly? It seems that young children would have a better capacity to deal with societal change in the sense that they do not have an extensive set of built up expectations (i.e. about society/culture). However any change in society that makes it more difficult for parents to provide a stable home environment (i.e. regular hours, time with parents, “normal” stress levels, etc…), affects children negatively. Thus, there is an indirect connection between changes in, for example, a society’s view on work and children’s ability to cope with this changing view.

    14

    Russell Arben Fox 09.12.06 at 7:11 am

    “If you make a lot of noise about having to have a competitive and flexible labour force—as NuLab have—then mum and dad are going to be working all hours to pay the mortgage, and when they are at home are going to slump in front of the TV after they’ve heated the ready-meals in the microwave.”

    Exactly. And so the liberal alignment with the market and the meritocracy, as inevitable and even necessary as it perhaps may be in some ways, ends up undermining much what the left was originally supposed to promise.

    Of course, we’ve been around this track before, arguing about why kids don’t walk to school anymore, about how to raise kids in ways counter to the dominant meritocratic culture, about the value of work in the home in comparison to “productive” work outside it, and about the value of being a slacker. But still, those were some fine and important arguments; it wouldn’t be a bad thing to run through them all again.

    15

    Ray 09.12.06 at 7:12 am

    Well, maybe it would work better with examples. What is ‘cultural change’ here – immigration? women working? What’s technological change – computers? closed-circuit cameras? biometric ID cards? The letter seems to be pointing to junk food and televisions, but they are not examples of children’s failure to adapt.

    In what sense is the rapidity of the change the most important feature? And how rapid are these changes really, on the scale of a child’s life? (And isn’t it beyond a cliche to say that children are far better at adapting to and understanding new technology than their parents? Is there anyone left on the planet who hasn’t heard the joke about getting your kids to set the video for you?)

    16

    Ray 09.12.06 at 7:13 am

    aaron, I agree, but I think the problem there is parents (or families) failing to adapt, not children.

    17

    Matt 09.12.06 at 7:32 am

    Man, ray- you’ve made 5 out of 15 comments, all saying the same thing. Saddly I don’t suspect that’s a record, even around here, buy maybe it’s time to drop it or move on to a different point.

    18

    john m. 09.12.06 at 7:39 am

    “They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past.

    Can anyone come up with a coherent reason why this is a particularly bad thing? Preferably without going off on a tangent about the general issue of weather it’s OK to aim advertising at children?”

    Maybe it’s just me, but the sight of a six year old girl dressed in a mini skirt and t-shirt saying “Porn Star” does not require a lot of thought to be considered a bad thing but maybe I’m old fashioned and the father of a four year old girl. The urge to do so seems to originate from the wider consumer world, hence the criticism.

    The other points I feel can be handled otherwise or disputed.

    19

    Ginger Yellow 09.12.06 at 7:40 am

    “I know there are regions of the internet where masturbation is regarded as a fundamental human right, but CT isn’t one of them.”

    Sorry to bite, but of course it’s a fundamental human right. It would be a gross violation of civil liberties to ban masturbation. We’re not even talking about consenting adults, here, just personal autonomy.

    20

    Ray 09.12.06 at 7:47 am

    what can I say, slow day at work.

    21

    albert 09.12.06 at 8:11 am

    We’re not even talking about consenting adults, here, just personal autonomy.
    Um, that’s exactly the distinction we’re talking about thank you.

    …ever more rapid technological and cultural change.
    I suppose I just don’t see why this statement is considered so outlandish. Overly vague (as to specific ages and specific effects), but completely reasonable. I think saying “social” change would have connoted their meaning more clearly, but if you were to say “kids develop better in a relatively stable environment and should spend plenty of time away from technology including in the out-of-doors” then I think it’s undisputable.

    22

    Ray 09.12.06 at 8:44 am

    (bites tongue)

    23

    dearieme 09.12.06 at 9:33 am

    I find it easy to believe that there were some real advantages for British children being brought up in the Asterix years, say 1955-1965, that you refer to, compared to 1995-2005. Rather odd, however, for the writers not to suggest that, on average, other things being equal, children might do better with two parents in the household, both being the biological parents. Perhaps they didn’t wish to attract accusations of family fascism? Or perhaps their imaginations didn’t run to such fantastical notions?

    24

    Ray 09.12.06 at 9:35 am

    Or maybe they thought that “regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives” was the key issue, not the number of those adults, or their biological relationship.

    25

    Laura 09.12.06 at 10:08 am

    Hurrah!! Thanks, Chris, for posting this letter.

    I’m not sure whether or not those individual items are good or bad for kids. Tim Burke has edged me to more of moderate on the video games thing, but I’m just happy that people are trying to make the needs of children a national or cross-national priority. I want there to be discussions about what is good for kids, rather than what is good for adults and good for the economy. I want there to be public policy centered on the needs of children. I’m sick of the whole “children are resilient” meme that takes all these items off the agenda.

    Russell has pointed out some of our fun discussions we’ve had on this topic in the blogosphere. I want it out of the blogosphere and in the newspapers and in political science papers at APSA.

    26

    Bobcat 09.12.06 at 10:55 am

    I’ll bite about the sexualization of children thing. Take the 6-year old girl wearing a “porn star” T-shirt. There certainly seems *something* disturbing, off-kilter, and maybe even immoral about that sort of behavior (the immorality would have to do with the parents’ behavior, not the kids’). But what, precisely? Is it that allowing kids to dress like that makes them targets for sexual predators, or sexualizes them in such a way that they become encouraged by others to rush headlong into sexual relations for which they’re not yet mature? Is it that it violates decency, full stop?

    As for rapid social change, I can see some effects being bad for children; perhaps moving a lot from place to place, never feeling that her apartment or house is really “home”, or not being able to form lasting friendships. (Similarly, if “rapid social change” has to do with encouraging divorce, then I would imagine that, on average, that would be bad for kids.) That, anyway, is the first thing that comes to mind.

    27

    dearieme 09.12.06 at 11:00 am

    Ah, ray, but what if “regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives” turned out to be likelier, more satisfactory and safer with two biological parents present? With all the usual qualifications – “on average”, etc, etc.

    28

    MQ 09.12.06 at 11:39 am

    Boy, this comments thread is soooo much better than the clucking conventional wisdom in the original post. Isn’t anyone going to continue the debate on the right to masturbation?

    29

    abb1 09.12.06 at 12:03 pm

    Every sperm is sacred.

    30

    etat 09.12.06 at 12:28 pm

    Isn’t anyone going to continue the debate on the right to masturbation?

    Only when Onan is confirmed as the patron saint of blogging.

    31

    Backword Dave 09.12.06 at 12:39 pm

    DM on 23, you’re talking about me, you realise. ;)

    Why the Torygraph? Because it’s a better paper than the Times, which stopped being the serious paper of record some time ago. Why not the Grauniad? Because when complaining about education, it helps if your letter is spelled correctly.

    I largely agree with Jo’n at 11, and sorta with BobCat at 26. But who doesn’t? The whole JonBenet thing exposed a consensus that dressing your six year old up in a way which would be sexy ten years later is deeply creepy and disturbs most of us.

    Does anyone disagree with the point Chris summarised starting with “School starts too young …”? This seems obvious. (Though I think competition is fine for older children.)

    32

    Ray 09.12.06 at 1:30 pm

    what if “regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives” turned out to be likelier, more satisfactory and safer with two biological parents present?

    You still have to ask, what should society value and encourage – the social interaction or the two biological parents?

    33

    blah 09.12.06 at 2:11 pm

    To summarize:

    –No one disputes points 2-5.

    –Point 1 needs some clarification to be meaningful.

    –It is disputed whether point 4 should emphasize interaction with 2 biological parents.

    –Point 6 needs to define more clearly why early sexualization is a bad thing.

    Anyway, I agree with Laura. This is a interesting and important topic; the quibbling is disappointing.

    34

    Meteor Blades 09.12.06 at 3:12 pm

    OK. I’ll bite.

    Early sexualization and exposure to porn is a good thing because all that junk food and sitting in front of a computer all day instead of running around outside means today’s young generation will be the first to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents due to early onset diabetes and obesity.

    35

    harry b 09.12.06 at 4:21 pm

    Ok, I suspect this has degenerated too much for a good conversation, so I’ll be flip too. Here’s an answer to dearieme’s question: no mention of divorce in a letter to the Telegraph for the same reason that the letter didn’t appear in the Guardian — no point in preaching to the converted?

    No, I’m being flip — divorce is a sort of third rail of discussion of childhood (btw, it is divorce you wanted to discuss, not adoption, right — being with adoptive parents seems not to have bad consequences; it is being with a single parent or one parent and their partner who is not your parent that seems to be a problem — at least according to US conducted research). I went to a great series of public policy seminars about childhood a few years ago, which included high ranking civil servants and senior academics and was sponsored by a church organisation, and no-one talked about divorce. I mentioned it in my own contibution to the Torygraph bloggish discussion, which they haven’t yet posted (maybe the obvious link between me and one of the signatories rules me out).

    But part of the reason for that was that it was so hard to get past the “children are so robust that they are ok no matter what is done to them” theme that the pomo-influenced academics peddled (that Laura finds so annoying). That, and a wierd version of child liberation that assumes that because some children cope well with lots of responsibilities at young ages there is no relevant difference between them and adults for policy purposes (except in law — such people are rarely content when children are tried as adults, but sometimes say such things as “if we try them as adults we should give them adult rights” rather than the more sensible “they are children, so we should not try them as adults”).

    36

    Chris Bertram 09.12.06 at 4:29 pm

    john m. above:

    Maybe it’s just me, but the sight of a six year old girl dressed in a mini skirt and t-shirt saying “Porn Star” does not require a lot of thought to be considered a bad thing.

    Exactly so. Those like “blah” who think we need to “define more clearly” why it is a bad thing simply demonstrate their own disconnection and alienation. Whether this is a result of spending too much time on internet comments threads or whether the alienated and disconnected end up spending too much time on such threads is something I’m not sure about, but the various references to onanism seem to the point.

    37

    Colin Danby 09.12.06 at 4:43 pm

    What’s the evidence for the declining mental health of young Britons that seems to be the letter’s premise? This is a genuine question.

    On the rest of the letter, I see what looks like a plausible policy stance in the remarks on testing in primary education.

    But the rest is finger-wagging conventional wisdom, non sequiturs, and pop social sciencey cliches e.g. “ever more rapid technological and cultural change,” “fast-moving hyper-competitive culture,” “pushed by market forces.”

    And the condescending peroration: “a sensible first step would be to encourage parents and policy-makers to start talking about ways of improving children’s well-being.” I guess it’s a staple of Brit polemic to assume your interlocutors are idiots, but, really, have parents ever stopped talking about ways to improve children’s well-being? Is there a politicial anywhere who doesn’t have a ready line about the well-being of children? So the problem cannot be that there is no discussion. If the problem is that debate is diffuse and cliched, this letter is part of the problem.

    38

    blah 09.12.06 at 5:06 pm

    Those like “blah” who think we need to “define more clearly” why it is a bad thing simply demonstrate their own disconnection and alienation.

    In my post, I was just summarizing the collective wisdom of the thread. But in fact, it never hurts to explain more clearly why something is a bad thing. Saying that a point needs further explication is not equivalent to disagreeing with the point. I actually agree that early sexualization is bad for children, but why would it hurt to clarify the reasons behind this intiution? How does that show I am aliented and disconnected?

    And what’s wrong with masturbation?

    39

    Sam Dodsworth 09.12.06 at 5:23 pm

    Maybe it’s just me, but the sight of a six year old girl dressed in a mini skirt and t-shirt saying “Porn Star” does not require a lot of thought to be considered a bad thing.

    It doesn’t require a lot of thought because we find it disturbing – although not everybody does, as evidenced by the fact that people dress their children that way. But how does that lead us to conclude that it must be bad for the children, and why does the letter connect that to exposure of children to “unsuitable” material?

    I submit that this part of the letter is really a complaint that children are being exposed to the idea of sex earlier than the authors like. But I also submit that they’re confusing things they don’t like with things that are harmful – here and in the rest of the letter.

    40

    Martin Bento 09.12.06 at 7:12 pm

    I do have to agree that the contemporary family meets children´s needs poorly, though I think this letter makes a garbled case. More adult interaction is, I suspect, far the most important point. The changes in the family brought mostly by liberal divorce laws have created a problem, and I think the long run success of our more flexible family structures depends on our finding other ways to effectively meet these needs outside the nuclear family. In my own opinion, the nuclear family itself does not meet the needs of children very well either. The extended family does, and that´s one reason the reduction of the extended to nuclear families was followed in a generation by the disintegration of the nuclear family itself. Regardless of whether you are tempermentally inclined to glorify the standard 1950´s family, it was not stable. The first generation of children raised in it rejected it hard.

    From what I gathered from anthropology, nuclear families are characteristic of band and village societies. The other local adults fill the children´s needs for significant adult relationships outside of their parents. The other relatives, at least of a given gender, marry out to form alliances. In agricultural societies, the extended family becomes basic. The 50´s family was nuclear but lacked a ¨”village”. Its children created a culture that was preagrarian in some respects – it emphasized nomadism and gave less value to investment of various kinds. At some point, I´m going to write something expanding these ideas.

    41

    will u. 09.12.06 at 7:21 pm

    “sedentary, screen-based entertainment”

    How can complex, nonlinear, and open-ended games like SimCity, Civilization, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion not be cognitively healthy?

    42

    Daniel 09.13.06 at 2:17 am

    How can complex, nonlinear, and open-ended games like SimCity, Civilization, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion not be cognitively healthy?

    I note that all the people I know who spent a lot of time playing Civilization were quite intelligent when they started and now revile the name of Civilization as being a complete time-sink from which they gained nothing. Kind of like having a blog really.

    43

    djw 09.13.06 at 4:16 am

    being with adoptive parents seems not to have bad consequences

    Don’t tell Velleman…

    44

    Alex Gregory 09.13.06 at 5:02 am

    “But I also submit that they’re confusing things they don’t like with things that are harmful – here and in the rest of the letter.”

    I think this is an interesting point – there certainly seems to be some degree of “well I don’t like seeing children dressed that way” going on in this thread, which is hardly solid justification for claiming that it harms them. Which isn’t to say, of course, that it doesn’t harm them in any way, just that it’d be nice to know what the harm actually is.

    “How can complex, nonlinear, and open-ended games like SimCity, Civilization, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion not be cognitively healthy?”

    With complete ignorance of the debate on these issues, I spent a great deal of my childhood playing relatively thoughful games (Sim City, Civilisation, Monkey Island), and I’d be intrigued if anyone objected to these sorts of games, which in hindsight I think I probably learnt stuff from.

    45

    dearieme 09.13.06 at 5:10 am

    “Does anyone disagree with the point Chris summarised starting with “School starts too young …”?” A definite “dunno” from me; perhaps it depends on what school consists of.

    46

    Ray 09.13.06 at 6:56 am

    The not-summarized version complains of “an ever-earlier start to formal schoolwork and an overly academic test-driven primary curriculum”.
    I wonder if the complaint about formal schoolwork starting earlier doesn’t depend on where you pick your comparison point.

    The second bit is interesting. My vague across-the-water understanding is that the increase in tests is down to the government’s wanting to standardise education as much as possible, making sure that all kids learn the same thing to the same level at the same time – but the same government is handing over control of some schools to private businesses and encouraging the creation of faith schools, both of which have licence to teach substantially different curricula.

    47

    harry b 09.13.06 at 7:58 am

    That’s not the reason for the tests, ray, and the complaint ranges wider than the tests. The extensive testing is in fact a crucial part of wide ranging accouontability measures — the idea is supposed to be that they measure desired outcomes which might have been achieved just about any way, and hence indicate the quality of the schooling (when appropriately used in a Value Added index). It is the corrolary of the quite radical school choice system they use (radical when looking from the US anyway). The drive to encourage new kinds of schools (including the fundamentalist schools) is an attempt to make choice more “real” — but the idea is that people need good information about the performance of the schools.

    One of the difficulties with any accountability regime is this: you are trying to get a sense of what is going on in the school so you can hold the school accountable. But in order to do that the tests need to be reaosnably high stakes for the kids, because you are testing their achievement, so you need to get them to take them seriously. Accountability regimes in the US haven’t dealt with this well; but the culture around testing in the UK means that kids feel a good deal of pressure, and teachers feel pressure to teach the stuff that will be tested (which is only a fraction, if an important fraction, of a rounded primary experience).

    “Early formal schoolwork” means early by just about any standards — certainly kids are doing formal schoolwork in reception class, when the kids are one year younger than they would be in Kindergarten in the US, and two years younger (or more, perhaps) than when they would start school in Germany. My sense is that the French start early too, but its unusual. There’s also no reason to believe it is especially effective in triggering early learning — play, and relaxing interaction with caring adults are mostly important for their own sake and for the emotional wellbeing of the kid, but they are also pretty effective for academic learning (we’re talking about young 5 yr olds and 4 yr olds here).

    The letter writers aren’t for dumbing down the curriculum or anything like that either — some of them I know are enthusiastic about the national literacy and numeracy strategies (which seem to have been pretty effective at improving literacy and numeracy, though the studies showing that are not methodologically perfect).

    48

    Ray 09.13.06 at 8:29 am

    Interesting, thanks.

    (The comparison points for formal schoolwork I was thinking of weren’t other countries, but other periods of time. I know next to nothing about the formality of early schooling over time, but I’m wondering if the early years weren’t quite formal in, say, the 1940’s, became less formal in the 70’s and are becoming more formal again now?)

    49

    Harry 09.13.06 at 8:42 am

    I think I can even help on that! The very early years weren’t formal even in those years (partly because mostly kids didn’t start till after the very early years). After that (I mean after the early years) there was a lot of rote learning — much less sophisticated and intellectually challenging than what is now done. But most schools practiced pretty early, if rather informal, streaming (much earlier than you would do now) and in the lower streams there would be a lot of non-academic but practical learning. My grandfather (maternal, not paternal, but someone who influenced my dad quite a bit) taught what they delightfully called Educationally Sub-Normal primary kids (a much larger group than you might think) and other “lower stream” kids from the 1920s to the late 60’s, and his curriculum was almost entirely things like woodwork, gardening, music, etc. Of course, there were jobs for people with practical skills but not much formal education then. We must have readers who attended primary school in the 40’s and 50’s (ie prior to the progressive reforms which evolved in the early to mid 60s). What was it like?

    50

    Bruce Baugh 09.13.06 at 9:53 am

    There’s a huge difference between exposing children to the idea of sex and encouraging them to present themselves in sexualized ways. It’s a good idea for children to know at least some about where babies come from, how people develop, and like that. This has nothing to do with the “look at me, I’m a fuck toy” style.

    The latter is particularly bad for girls because it encourages them to associate sexualization with fun social interactions. Dressing up is fun. Playing around with images is fun. Getting others’ friendly or admiring attention is fun. These are things that it’s right and proper for kids to do. But when more and more of it is sexualized, girls get less and less practice separating sexual interactions from others, which at least won’t help them and may well hurt when it’s time to fend off men who want sex in situations where the girl’s or woman’s own choice would be to not have it.

    In addition, it certainly doesn’t do anything to discourage those men who think of women as basically ambulatory nookie dispensers. A positive emphasis on non-sexual interactions wouldn’t necessarily do the jerks any good, but it would help set the general context against them.

    I’m very much in favor of healthy sex as part of a well-balanced life. I’ve long noticed, though, that among the women I know who’ve been abused or assaulted, one of the most common bits of reflective analysis is along the lines of “I was taught that sex was the price of something else that I actually wanted.” None of us guys should be thinking of our wanting to get laid as justifying that kind of price. And the too-early sexualization of appearance and manner for girls feeds into it.

    51

    harry b 09.13.06 at 10:12 am

    Thanks bruce. Exactly right. People need to distinguish between prudery and the ability to put sexuality in its proper place (which is not in the forefront of the lived experience of young children). If the latter soemtimes looks likes the former so be it; I suspect that accusations that the latter is the former are usually either from the deeply screwed up or are mischevious (to put it kindly).

    52

    dearieme 09.13.06 at 4:16 pm

    Primary school in the 50s, in rural Scotland. I wore clogs for the first couple of years at school. We spoke Scots in the playground, Scottish English in class and with our parents. Our year group had two streams, each of 45 pupils. We had exams (“tests”) at the end of each term and terse, but very informative, “report cards” to take home. The strap (=belt=tawse) was used, but not very much because classes were orderly and cheerful. We sat at individual desks arranged in rows facing the blackboard. The class would be arranged with the slower and more obstreperous children at the front, the clever and well-behaved at the back. When we were vey small, we also had slates to write on. We would be instructed in something together, then set a task and Miss would circulate to help and encourage us. The first two years were called “infants” and were taught in a modern building, with lots of playground and playing field outside. Then we moved to a Victorian building, with outdoor loos and small concrete playgrounds, one for girls, one for boys. The headmaster taught a full class and did his admin work after we all went home. The only threat of violence came on the way to school, when a short-tempered, hirpling swan would occassionally leave the river and pursue us. Eventually 3 of my class of 45 went on to win class medals at Ancient Universities. One of our athletes went on to compete at a Commonwealth Games.

    53

    anonymous 09.13.06 at 9:29 pm

    This inspires me to imagine a depressing Brian Aldiss-type satire whereon the high-calorie junk food, the high-pressure schooling, early sexualization of children, and neoliberalism combine in synergy to produce a generation of kids who learn calculus and Greek at 5 (hey, John Stuart Mill did it!), become sexually mature at 7, enter the work force at 10, due to the rescission of child-labor laws, and die at 30.

    54

    Sam Dodsworth 09.14.06 at 4:44 am

    Bruce (#50)

    Do children learn anything about sex from dressing in clothes that would be sexy on an adult, or is it just part of the general case of “children look cute when dressed as miniature grown-ups”? That, I think, is where people who let their kids dress as their favorite Spice Girl(*) differ from people who don’t.

    (*) Or whoever. I’m not up on the latest young people’s popular beat combos.

    Harry (#51)

    If I read you right, you think I must be a troll, a moral imbecile, or a pervert. I don’t think I’m any of those things, but perhaps I’m not capable of being sufficiently objective.

    What I was trying to be, in a half-arsed sort of way, was Socratic. The real problem with that letter is that (charitably) all its facts are given on authority and its arguments are entirely implied. I wanted to see if some kind of argument about actual consequences could be teased out of what look to me like the weakest points.

    55

    Bruce Baugh 09.14.06 at 9:52 am

    Sam, I don’t have much actual research at hand to link to, but can acquire some if you’re curious. The primarily anecdotal evidence I have from women friends about their own experience and from both female and male friends who work wtih abused children is that children with sexualized appearance face more pressure from others to sexualize their behavior, too. More simply, the “come hither” light goes on, whether the kid intends it or not.

    One could argue that the root problem is a rotten culture of guys. I do argue that. But in addition to reforming the education and morals of boys, it seems only sensible to me to help keep girls out of some of the obvious snares and pitfalls. This is one of them. There’s no compensatory good to offset the trouble that prematurely sexualized appearance brings.

    56

    Bruce Baugh 09.14.06 at 9:54 am

    Just to be clear, yes, I realize that that last part is an assertion of a moral judgment. It’s also contingent on the data I have; if I were to learn of a great good that might match the great evils that come from sexual harassment, child abuse, all-but-rape sex, and the like, I would indeed have to reconsider it, and even though I am obviously skeptical at best, I’d look at evidence for such a good.

    Comments on this entry are closed.