Anna Dusseau | 22nd July 2020
“He won’t get far on hot air and fantasy.”The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
A few weeks ago, things kicked off in the house over the road, as I knew they would. After many months of cursing lockdown and lamenting school closures, finally the announcement came that some schools would be partially reopening before the summer holidays. I got a text the night it happened. And thank goodness, the last line read. Because P and C couldn’t stand much more of this. Part of me did want to twist the knife and reply with something tart, along the lines of how incredibly lucky P and C are to have spent the summer playing in the paddling pool, and to have parents who’ve kept both their health and employment during the pandemic. But I didn’t. Instead, I sent a sent a crying-with-laughter emoticon (this one has such a range, don’t you find?) and wrote back, in capitals: BRING ON MONDAY! And it was, of course, a disaster. Along with Tuesday and Wednesday; in fact, the whole of that first week ‘back in the saddle’. I even felt sorry for P and C, frequently tearful and shouting in the front garden. The oldest one, especially, got a lot of “don’t you dare speak to your mother like that” and – once – threw his schoolbag into the road and slammed the front door. I honestly didn’t know C had it in him. And meanwhile, in Casa Del Homeschool, my kids are bouncing on the sofa, watching movies in their pyjamas and generally having the time of their lives. Okay, okay! I’m being deliberately provocative, but there is a serious point to make here. Let’s see if I can string it together.
P and C are children, just like mine. They are even similar ages, and there is certainly nothing that makes P and C fundamentally different, less agreeable, or less lovable. In fact, P appears to brush her hair which – I’ve pointed out to my eldest on more than one occasion – rather suits her face. (Notably, the day we quit school, all manner of French plaits and ponytails went out the window and the ‘no tears’ hairbrush became Enemy Number One, despite its branding.) So the children over the road are in no way ‘made of different stuff’; they are simply reacting to a different set of pressures. Whatever your position on the school/homeschool continuum, it’s clear as salt that lockdown has been – overall – hardest on schoolchildren. Forced to follow a ‘home study’ schedule of school-based worksheets and projects, with parents who have been involuntarily catapulted into the situation, often with high-pressure remote work to manage alongside, the stakes were high from the outset. But for children now contemplating a return to school, emotional tension has reached a peak. Not all parents are the same, of course, but in our social circle, I have lost count of the conversations we’ve had with school parents claiming – for months now – that their children “can’t wait to get back to school and see their friends.” They are, apparently, so bored at home. Thus, the pressure has been steadily building to the point that, when children like P and C were told they’d be back in the classroom on Monday, it must have felt like salvation, and who knows what expectations children then place upon their ideal vision of what the ‘big return’ will be like? The trouble is though, it’s still just school. More than that, it’s school operating under a new set of challenging rules and demands. The anticlimax, in all its forms, can be painful. Why am I saying all this?
We did the school run too, not so long ago. I absolutely identify with the social cohesion that adults experience through mutual eye-rolling and swapping of increasingly unruly stories about their offspring; evidence that they really should be in school where, presumably, they can be tamed and civilised. Almost everyone buys into this discourse, whatever their real feelings for the small humans they live with. Since we quit school, though, my husband and I have had a radical course in parenting, delivered free of charge by our three tangle-haired humans. The message has been clear: back off and leave us alone. Research shows that this is a typical response from children who have come into home education as a result of leaving the school system (as opposed to never going to school) and is a reason why quite a significant proportion of parents who have withdrawn their children from school go on to identify more with ‘unschooling’ or ‘relaxed homeschooling’ approaches. Many parents – ourselves included – would say their children made the choice for them. Left to make their own choices, they make rapid progress in various areas of interest, becoming self-directed learners and rapidly fluent readers; the so-called ‘gateway’ to knowledge. But, given even a hint of adult agenda (“Let’s see if we can match these shapes to their mirror images!”) and they run for the hills or – worse – complete the task in no time at all and with zero engagement, purely to ‘get it done’ and move on with their lives. So, with this dynamic in mind, I decided to give my lot a proper summer holiday; seven weeks of – I swear – no interference in their plans and goals, no ‘sneaking in a bit of reading’ or casually leaving a copy of National Geographic open on a promising article. Nope; this summer is about what they want to do and, right now, that means watching movies in the morning. Cue the middle class outrage.
Morning movies aren’t, of course, the only thing they are doing with their summer holiday. My daughter wrote a playscript the other day and badgered us all into extremely unbecoming costumes, to act out ‘The Marriage of Venus and Spiderman’ in the back garden. My son, utterly gripped by numbers and facts, has been making a wall chart of positive and negative numbers (his own idea) and asks me on a daily basis what the next galaxy is after the Milky Way. And the next one. And the next one. So far we have – discounting dwarf clusters which are satellites of our own galaxy – Andromeda, Triangulum, Circinus. Then we get into the real space quack: NGC 3109, M94 group, and Dwingeloo 1. The baby can now say ‘Dumbledore’, and we are all thrilled with that. So the ‘morning movie’ thing is a new feature of our day. My kids – more from choice than any active coercion – don’t really watch TV or play video games at all, so I am more than happy for them to watch a movie at the weekend, or on a rainy afternoon when I’m trying to get the dinner ready. Movies have advantages that other screen-based distractions do not, including complexity of plot, characterisation, and variety of pace, as well as considerable artistry in the ‘craft’ of movie-making. It’s not just acting as a dummy. In fact, movies aren’t ‘dumb’ at all. Depending on the sensibilities and interests of your children, you can expose them to a vast range of adventures and new worlds to dive into, from elegant animations such as Up to old-school fantasy romps like Labyrinth or Time Bandits, and life-changing foreign films such as Pahuna: the Little Visitors and incredible documentaries like the beautiful, global-themed Babies. For children genuinely interested in how films are made, there is also plenty of scope to watch ‘behind the scenes’ action in ‘the making of…’ documentaries and YouTube footage. The possibilities are endless. Why the morning, though, and what do I see them getting out of it?
Last weekend, I told the kids over breakfast that Spirited Away – hands down, my favourite Studio Ghibli movie – was available on Netflix. They were curious and wanted to see it straight away; something which would usually be a flat ‘no’ in our house. Guys, it’s the weekend, it’s sunny outside, films are for 4pm onward! But, I’m deschooling myself this summer, so I nodded ‘okay’, and we put it on. The baby and I played mostly in the hammock outside, coming in every now and then to check what was happening in the movie and watch together for a short while, before shadowing the tiny torpedo on track to his next piece of mischief. But when the older two had finished the movie and came, blinking, into the sunlight, something quite magical happened for the remainder of the day. They were, palpably, ‘lost’ in the film and this played out in various manifestations all the way through to bedtime. First, there was a lot of imaginary play involving spirits and mystery and, of course, giant pigs. My eldest mostly wanted to be Chihiro, but I noticed her brother occasionally taking the lead role, too, battling supernatural beings and telling his sister “quick, RUN!” Then there was about an hour over lunchtime, when both children were pouring over a couple of old Japanese manga books they found on a shelf in our bedroom. They identified the style immediately and, while my son carried on flicking through the pages, my daughter sprang to the kitchen table with paper and a pot of brightly coloured pens, to begin sketching out her own manga artwork inspired – naturally – by the adventures of Chihiro. Even our afternoon walk by the river was absorbed in the fallout from the film: “What happens to us when we die, mummy?” “Do you believe in a spirit world?” “Was the Kaonashi good or bad?” Needless to say, there was no further ‘screen time’ that day; not because I put my foot down, but because the kids were lost through to bedtime in the enchantment of the movie they had started out with. Sometimes, flipping the day on its head works out, after all.
I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, encourage my children to watch whole movies on a daily basis. But I am becoming gradually more relaxed about the boundaries for movie-time, and the importance of this being something that works for them, rather than just what is convenient for me. Morning movies, from time to time, can bewitch the usual course of the day, pouring imaginative wonder and new lines of investigation into the long hours between noon and bed. Unless, like me, you have a very small person who is constantly ‘on the go’, I would also recommend sitting down to watch films with your children which, like the shared experience of reading together, enhances the benefit for everyone. Perhaps your children, unlike sedentary adults, enjoy the narrative of movies but equally crave movement; a physical outlet for processing on-screen tension, playing out the action taking place, or releasing energy during a lull in the pace. If I know the movie is a good one and worth experiencing as a ‘whole’, I will often pull two of the sprung mattresses off the beds and bring them into the living room, where my son practices jumps and flips, pausing every now and then to sprawl on his stomach for an exciting moment in the film, before leaping up again to physically inhabit the storyline. My daughter has a longer concentration span and will mostly follow the plot intently from her ‘cushion den’ on the sofa; however, I notice that she always has her rollerskates on, just in case she needs to do a quick lap of the room – fleeing baddies, jumping waterfalls, and turning on her heel just in time to brake before the Bog of Eternal Stench. Movies are magic and childhood is fleeting. Whether or not your children are back to school in the autumn, I hope this summer gives all of you the chance to escape on epic journeys, through movies, books, and real-life adventures. Don’t think twice. There’ll be plenty of time for satchels and symmetry come September.