Anna Dusseau | 26th August 2020
Most – not all – children thrive through contact with playmates. Let us agree on that. Back in June, we formed a bubble with another family and this created a regular opportunity for my 3 to indulge in long afternoons of tree climbing, stinging nettle battles, and what I can only assume to be existential meditation, walking slow-footed in an uneven line way ahead, sticks dragging limply in the dust behind them. But this, I know, is not enough. It breaks my heart to think of the vibrant routine we enjoyed before Lockdown, with clubs and classes and friends coming over, impromptu, afterwards to make up dance routines in bedrooms until night fell and the house smelt of pizza, the walls shivering with the sound of laughter coming from another room. I’m sad it’s not like this anymore; not for now, at least. But that’s not what people mean when they tell me that “children need to be with their friends.” What they mean, by and large, is that “children need to be in school.” Which is another way of saying “I need them to be in school.” Which is convenient, really, when you think about it.
What I mean is, it’s a neat and effective trick of the mind to convince oneself that school is the place where our children get to hang out with their friends and be happy. It is a perfect illusion. By convincing ourselves that our children are better off at school than in the home, we assuage ourselves of the huge burden of making that home a stimulating and nurturing place to be. Everything from resources and activities, to conversations, conflict resolution, and even the tone of voice we use to speak with our children, becomes less important when we emotionally invest in the fallacy that they are getting all this elsewhere. And it goes full circle. Because schoolchildren spend every day of the working week in the company of their classmates, these connections do indeed become of primary importance to them; not necessarily because they are all kindred spirits but simply because, through circumstance, these are the people they spend the majority of their time with. I’m sure I don’t need to convince you of the fractious, fickle, and occasionally downright unpleasant nature of school friendship groups. Most of us went to school; we remember. And we tell ourselves it’s normal even though, really, it’s not. 150 years have passed since state schooling became law; there is nobody living now to recall what friendship was like before. We build theories on sand.
Children need much more than a ‘clique’ of same-age school friends to swap Pokemon cards and squabble with. They need to forge real connections with a broad range of people, including older children and adult mentors, or “alloparents”. When, before the pandemic, we used to attend a weekly home ed group, I was always struck by the choices my older two would make. Standing on the other side of the room, with the baby on my hip, I would watch as my middle son gravitated naturally towards a game going on between a very small toddler and often an adult, or teenager. My son is excellent with little ones, and he is also quite a charmer, so this social setup suited him well and, I observed, became his “way in” to the group. Later that morning, I might see him streaking across the room to take cover under a table, pursued by a couple of war-like boys and the sound of explosions, but for the first half hour, where he wanted to be was playing peekaboo with an adoring audience. My daughter, too, knows her own mind, and in this context seemed to mostly seek the company of slightly older children – mostly girls – who she could chat away with. She rarely “clicked” with a child of her own age. And she is, after all, a handful. Which makes socialising with same-age peers fraught with power dynamics which, in a mixed-age setting, naturally dissolve into a relationship of mild affection; an exchange of “lessons in life”. My eldest is in her element here.
Funnily enough, as a teacher you soon discover that many children are looking not for other children, but for adults to connect with. This can be awkward. “Do you have a boyfriend, Miss?” is what I used to get all the time, until I married. “Errrrrr, nope,” I would say, sweeping my papers off the desk and making for the door; not wishing to enter the syntactic realm of “boyfriend” vs “partner”. Anyway, it was none of their business. “Do you want one, though? You’re quite pretty, Miss. I’m sure there’s someone out there for you.” And I would look up and meet the eyes of this child – often, but not always, a girl – and realise that the question is not really about me; it’s about them. Children naturally seek older children and often adult role models to use as a sounding board for figuring out life. A Year 9 student who asks me whether I have a boyfriend, is really asking what boyfriends are like and how they might be acquired – natural, human questions which I would probably enjoy answering in detail over a tin of biscuits, only I can’t. I have 5 minutes before the next lesson starts and I don’t want to lose my job by crossing the invisible line of teacher-pupil propriety. So instead, I would straighten up and swing the door wide to encourage the child to leave. “Thanks, Saffia,” I might say, as we hit the corridor. But my heart sank a bit and, I expect, so did hers.
Childhood happens in slow motion. There are endless conversations to be had, games to be played, books to be read, and moments to be embraced, just standing in the kitchen listening to Beastie Boys and making up the recipe. Does that need another egg? It looks like it needs another egg... Last week, we went blackberry picking. In the time it took us to walk down the bike path to the bridge and back, my daughter had recounted most of The Hobbit to her dad, who nodded earnestly as they picked their way along, pausing only occasionally to pour a handful of blackberries into the bucket. I trailed behind with the boys, both slow walkers, and both more interested in seeing how many berries they could stuff into their mouth at once, than filling our empty bucket. We ambled along. Mostly, there was an amicable silence, but occasionally the littlest would point upwards and exclaim: “ba ba ba ba ba!” I followed his finger. “Oh, yes,” I said. “It’s a helicopter; you’re right.” And he beamed at me. His big brother trailed on in front, head bent; he had found a ladybird. Then he turned round and said: “Do you know who would love this?” “Who?” I asked. “Remi,” he answered, lifting his hand to show us better the insect making its way up his arm. “Remi would love this. Can I call him when we get home?” I nodded, but already he was moving away again, looking up at the sky, at the helicopter.
I call moments like this “growing in inch taller”, but you could equally call it “being present” or “standing still while the world turns.” In my opinion, children need this in bucketloads. Although friendship is a crucial aspect of child development, providing a vital satisfaction for our cooperative and communal instincts, it is during these moments of stillness, when the passage of time seems to slow right down, that we see into our children’s souls and get the privilege of eavesdropping on the very edges their developing minds. It requires time and patience; something which so many of us simply don’t have. This is why the concept that “children need to be with their friends” is so seductive; it simultaneously solves our problem and assuages our guilt. But the shifting face of convenient adult discourse regarding what is “best” for children stretches back as far as civilisation itself. In the 15th century, clergyman John Mirk popularised the concept that “children should be seen and not heard”, whilst the industrial demands of the 1800s preferred “the devil makes work for idle hands” – a biblical justification for child labour. Now, the focus is school and the belief that this is a necessary aspect of children’s social development boils down to the same thing; an adult-centric argument of economic convenience falsely couched as altruism. Let’s not kid ourselves.
To be clear, parents are not “at fault” per se. We are all – our political leaders included – victims of human history that has brought us to this point. I, too, used to drop my children off wailing at nursery because, I convinced myself, this was a better option than losing the house through being unable to pay the mortgage. And, when they didn’t cry anymore, I told myself as well that it was because they had “settled”, and my heart felt lighter for just a moment. But something has to give. There are only so many hours in the day, and when we choose to focus on ourselves – on work, on our adult orbit, on the terrible time-suck of social media – it’s our kids who suffer. We might comfort ourselves with the line that “they’d rather be in school” but we cannot convince our hearts that this is so; not when 100,000 years of homo sapien behavioural evolution has wired us raise our children differently, in physical and emotional proximity, not in institutions. We will always be fighting against some deep, ancestral instinct. I’m not idealising the past, nor am I suggesting that we all abandon our working lives to live round a camp fire. I like Nandos, too. I’m simply saying let’s not try to fool ourselves that the frog-march back to the classroom this September is because “children need to be with their friends.” It’s rather more complex.